A daily circus act

What's next in journalism?When broadcaster and former journalist Wendy Harmer launched The Hoopla, she dipped into her nest egg to cater for an audience that had largely been ignored. In this extract from What’s Next in Journalism? she shares her plan.

Looking back, I needed The Hoopla like a hole in the head. In early 2011, with a tidy book deal in hand, a children’s musical to write, the odd bit of radio presenting to do, and enough speaking engagements to keep me busy, all was well in my world. I consumed two or three books a week. I actually read my local rag, the Manly Daily, and wrote letters to the editor.

My media consumption was moderate. I liked to listen to Radio National, and my online activity was limited to a daily whizz around the major news sites. No Twitter — had hardly heard of it. My engagement with Facebook was desultory. My attempt at my own website, half-hearted.

Then, somehow, I fell head-first into the 24-hour news cycle and the social-media revolution, and someone pressed the button marked ‘fast spin’. My motherhood statement for The Hoopla’s first issue on 4 July 2011 was simple and modest enough: “I believe that the views and concerns of mature Australian women are increasingly overlooked in a landscape of celebrity, youth and sensation. In what many have termed ‘a race to the bottom’, where can we see ourselves?”

Two years, 3,000 posts and 50,000 comments later, I know where to find these women — they’re at my place. The Hoopla is an online daily magazine site with a huge roll call of contributors. The regular weekly writers include Monica Attard, Gabrielle Chan, Corinne Grant, Tracey Spicer, and Mrs Woog, and we’ve hosted some of the nation’s best-known authors and journalists, as well as the writers of popular blogs. The Hoopla always welcomes readers with personal tales to tell.

The offering is not aimed at women only, but they make up the bulk of our audience, and their lively, thoughtful (and often very long) comments always tell us when we’ve hit the mark.

“Please don’t go, Hoopla,” is a plea we often hear.

I wonder if that is because it seems to our readers that The Hoopla is too good to be true. That they know the domination of the internet by media conglomerates is not only a certainty, but coming to a screen near you… right about… now.

Whether The Hoopla, and sites like it that are free and independent, and that publish without fear or favour, are merely virtual thought-bubbles — here for a moment before being swamped by a tidal wave of corporate and media interests, never to be seen again — who knows? Can an independently owned and advertising-funded site thrive and grow on the internet? Will advertisers see this audience of ours, understand their lives and interests, and believe they’re worth talking to?

These are questions that keep me, and my partner, co-founder of The Hoopla, Jane Waterhouse, up at night. It’s what we talk about into the late hours after our kids are asleep and dreaming. My partnership with Jane is not a likely one. Nor was it ‘fate’ we should meet. It does make good sense, though, because we share a goal — to build an online community of Australian women who have been thus far ignored, and to identify and promote these women as a group with influence — politically, socially, and economically.

This is how we met. Late in 2010, the ABC cancelled the very popular podcast ‘Is it Just Me?’ that I’d been co-hosting with radio legend Angela Catterns. We were so disappointed at its demise. We knew the poddie had a dedicated audience who loved listening to our raves about life as middle-aged women — not ‘old and grumpy’, but still youngish and endlessly amused. We laughed a lot, and cried sometimes, and our listeners did, too.

Hundreds of emails and fan letters came in from ex-pats all over the world. We found listeners in the most unlikely places — from an embroidery workroom in Mumbai to a yacht cruising the Mediterranean. We also struck a chord with many, many listeners in Australia — lots of them women who complained that their husbands had banned them from listening to the podcast in bed because they were laughing too much at our antics.

We knew that we had found a huge audience. We knew it wasn’t ‘just us’. Angela and I decided we’d try to produce and sell the podcasts ourselves — with Ange’s large ABC radio following and mine from my days as a successful presenter at 2DayFM, we’d surely make a go of it.

“I’ve heard of this woman, Jane Waterhouse,” said Ange. “She’s an expert in marketing to women.”

So off we trooped to see Ms Waterhouse at her office in Surry Hills, Sydney. As two short brunettes tromped through her door she said: “I’ve been waiting for you two. I almost rang you last week.”

Jane was a marketing strategist with 25 years’ experience in dealing with brands — including Weight Watchers, Woman’s Day, New Idea, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Bonds, Berlei, Country Road, Mount Franklin, and Diet Coke — and she had founded her own company, Sister Communications. Finding out what women want, and how to talk to them and sell to them, had been her life’s work. It had been mine, too. Since the day I stepped on stage and performed my first stand-up routine about Barbie dolls back in the early 1980s, I’d loved engaging with a female audience, finding out what makes them tick, and then laugh.

Jane told us how she’d lately found herself at seminars with international marketing experts. One after the other would tell the audience that the middle-aged female market was a sleeping giantess. She recounted how one US marketing guru had banged his head against a wall, over and over, confused and loudly imploring: “Why don’t you guys get it?”

No-one seemed to want to talk to this legion of women who had come full circle, and who were now financially independent and making the same purchasing decisions they had in their twenties — a new car, overseas travel, a new bank, a house. “And then,” said Jane, “there is the sandwich generation who…” Ange and I nodded. These women were our bread and butter — those sandwiched between children and elderly parents.

As it turned out, we couldn’t make any money from our podcasts (they come for free these days), so Ange reluctantly left to pursue other career opportunities and I stayed at the table. Other high-profile women came, and went, but I stayed, and I’m still here. Today, I sit alongside the very talented Hoopla team: Lucy Clark, our editor, and Hayley Gleeson, the one who ensures we are seen and heard in cyberspace. The idea of a website for women like us (we are aged between 25 and 57) was so intriguing.

It wasn’t aiming to be some antipodean Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, or a even a superannuated Mia Freedman (by now, Jane had turned me on to The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, and Mamamia), but I’ll confess that there was one question that had lingered since I gave up my career as a daily news journalist almost three decades before to become a stand-up comedian: Would I have made a good editor? Through the wondrous possibilities of the internet, this was my chance to find out.

The partnership between Jane and me has been entirely equitable.

We agreed to stump up a not-insubstantial amount of money to get started. We took a very deep breath, shook hands on it, and raided our nest eggs. There were no investors in our start-up business. It was, for both of us, important to be independent.

Even the name, The Hoopla, was a fifty-fifty decision, made at 1.00 am over the phone. Me: “I reckon the word “hoopla” is good, but it looks like it’s already taken.” Jane: “What about the Hoopla? One word?” Done. “Hey, there. Hoop-la. The circus is in town.” A quote from C.J. Dennis. I could relate to that. Alley-Oop. The design of The Hoopla site was to Jane’s exacting brief — the beautiful wide space for photographs, and the revolving carousel. See the woman holding an umbrella in the corner? She’s teetering on a tightrope on one leg, twirling a hula-hoop on the other, and holding a parasol. That’s what women all now know as the ‘balancing act’.

The ‘daily juggle’.

Within a few months, with our team of four assembled — inaugural editor Caroline Roessler, (formerly managing editor of AWW and editor of Notebook:) and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) expert Hayley Gleeson on board — we hit the button, went live, and waited.

My first post, ‘Generation Jones … The Age Good Taste Forgot’ — all about the demographic aged between 35 and 55 who make up a quarter of the population of Western Countries — found an audience. Since then, Jane and I have made many mistakes along the way (although she likes to call them ‘learnings’). We are always fine-tuning our product.

Hourly conversations, daily strategies, and weekly work-in-progress meetings are all part of the process. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating; other times, exhausting. Daunting mostly. Today, The Hoopla business model is as based on advertising revenue, affiliate income and voluntary subscription. The bulk of the revenue is derived from advertising revenue however, unlike many sites, The Hoopla is not a reach-buy but a high engagement offering for clients who want to connect with women 35 plus in a meaningful way. The Hoopla reaches 105,000 people every month, 95 per cent of whom are women.

But the best thing is, because we are on the net and run a small team, we can spin on a dime … often leaving big media companies lumbering to catch up. And catch up, they try. Since we launched The Hoopla, Jane and I read daily of plans to launch yet another site into the space we occupy.

However, as every new entity has come along it has had the curious effect of making us even more unique. (And that’s different to ‘niche’. How, exactly, can an audience of women over 35 be ‘niche’?)

I wrote this as part of our mission statement: “We’re a diverse group, the choices we now have in how we live our lives are myriad. Happily gone are the days of politicians speaking about what ‘women think’ as if we were a job lot.” But I will admit that even Jane and I were guilty of ‘misunderestimating’ (that wonderful word added to the lexicon by George W. Bush) what Australian women want.

In the beginning, The Hoopla offered cocktail recipes, fashion, and shopping among our main staples — but it’s become increasingly clear that our readership wants to get its teeth into something far more substantial. They want politics, and lots of it — both national and international. They want stories on finance, women’s rights, the environment, gambling, alcohol, parenting, managing the care and expectations of elderly parents and, yes, body image. But when weight is on the agenda? It’s the politics of the big-business diet industry that our readers want to discuss.

That the market misunderestimates Australian women, too, is our greatest frustration. We wish the market would catch up. There is a deeper malaise below the well-documented demise of print advertising in magazines and newspapers, and the pitiful take-up of digital advertising.

Over and over again, Jane and I have presented The Hoopla to young men (and women) in media agencies who remain blithely oblivious to the charms and open wallets of the mature woman. Some say the ‘invisible woman’ is a myth. Not when you find yourself chipping away at the coalface of the market place and pre-Cambrian attitudes to any woman over 35, it isn’t.

The Hoopla is the best, most exhausting, underpaid gig I have ever had in my life. From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, until I close them at night, The Hoopla is a daily circus act. I couldn’t be prouder of how far Jane and I have come.

From that night when we held hands and launched ourselves on the highwire, we’ve tumbled, balanced, held our nerve, and haven’t fallen yet.

Since I first wrote this piece, We Magazines – now publisher of The Hoopla – has launched Birdee, a bold and brave news and opinion website for young women. Edited by The Hoopla’s Hayley Gleeson, Birdee features the writings and drawings of girls aged 16-to-25, focusing on issues including current affairs, politics, sex, health and wellbeing, feminism, science and smarts, art and poetry, and pop culture.

This is an edited extract from What’s Next in Journalism? New-media entrepreneurs tell their stories, edited by Margaret Simons (Scribe, RRP $19.95) available now.


Encore issue 32

This extract first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.


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