NCtrend: Happy talk

 In 2015-09

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by Ogi Overman
Before doomsday pundits drop the last shovelful of dirt on the print media industry, they might want to visit N2 Publishing in Wilmington. There, a staff of about 200 graphic artists, sales managers, administrators and press operators produce 800 glossy, monthly publications that target neighborhoods in 500 cities in 48 states. Started in June 2004, N2 expects revenue to top $50 million this year, or about five times the $11 million recorded in 2011.

“Every 15 months our company doubles in size,” CEO Duane Hixon says. “We’re adding five to 10 employees a month.” Inc. magazine has ranked the company among the 1,500 fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for the last four years.

N2’s concept is simple: Find a high-income neighborhood ranging from 200 homes to as many as 1,500. Then, hire an “area director” to sell yearlong ad contracts to merchants and service providers such as stockbrokers, while collecting editorial copy consisting mostly of articles promoting local businesses and describing kids’ activities, often written by moms. The ads and copy are sent to Wilmington, where cookie-cutter publications are produced and mailed to each home in a neighborhood, free of charge.

College friends Hixon and Earl Seals devised N2 after seeing similar publications in Atlanta, Austin and Indianapolis. “No one was really doing it on a large scale,” says Hixon, a general studies graduate of Indiana University. He began his first publication in his own Wilmington neighborhood, Farrington Farms. The company has since added six more neighborhoods in the Wilmington area.

Seals was living in St. Louis, and had started a handful of similar publications there. By 2008, Hixon, 39, and Seals, 44, were attracting assertive, sales-oriented people to take responsibility for all content, photos and advertising. After three days of orientation in Wilmington, area directors are mostly autonomous and receive much of the sales revenue, minus overhead charged by N2. If successful, they also earn a share of their publication’s equity. North Carolina now has about 30 N2 publications.

Don’t look for hard-hitting news about local issues. “Our motto is ‘turning neighborhoods into communities,’” Hixon says. “People like to know what their neighbors are doing, so we feature the folks in the neighborhood, anything from a remodeled kitchen, to a landscaping project in the backyard, to a son or daughter getting a scholarship to college. It’s all upbeat; we don’t get into any heated political or religious stories.”

Keeping it light, centralizing production and focusing on a small area is a savvy strategy in a time when  many publications struggle, says John Robinson, former editor of the Greensboro News & Record who now teaches at UNC Chapel Hill. “People want to connect with other people, and the smart papers and magazines have figured that out. Getting as local as you can, connecting neighbor to neighbor, can be a prosperous niche.”

The success of N2 has spurred copycat magazines around the country, so Hixon is courting new neighborhoods as fast as possible. “Say, we get the top six neighborhoods, they have to go to number seven, and it’s a harder gig. That’s how we keep the competition out.”

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