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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Village Soup’s hot pursuit of a hyperlocal model goes cold

The Maine online/print hybrid was acclaimed for its revenue model and a Knight News Challenge winner, but in the end, it couldn’t keep the doors open.

It wasn’t that long ago that Maine’s Village Soup was being lauded as a model for what a print/online hybrid strategy for local journalism could look like. That optimism took a big hit late Friday with the abrupt closure of Village NetMedia’s newspapers and their related websites.

Fifty-six Village Soup staffers got word on Friday evening, via email, that the Bar Harbor Times, Capital Weekly, Village Soup Gazette, Village Soup Journal and the Scene would immediately cease operations. The papers’ websites had been taken down and replaced with a message from Village Soup owner Richard M. Anderson about how “profound changes in the newspaper publishing business, a weak economy and our investment in new products created severe financial challenges” that made survival impossible. Employees were told that a deal that could have saved the papers — some of which were launched in the 1820s — had unraveled.

“[Anderson] got the word at the close of banking hours on Friday that this negotiation was not going to proceed, and I imagine he probably spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out how to tell us,” Shlomit Auciello, a former reporter and photographer for Village Soup Gazette, told me. “We are a little bit of a petri dish here right now.”

Anderson didn’t respond to my attempts at an interview. (His blog, Sustainable Journalism, was last updated in September.) But yesterday the Bangor Daily News found Anderson and quoted him saying he felt awful about the closure, adding, “Nobody did anything wrong.”

In the latter part of the last decade, he was a frequent speaker at future-of-news conferences, promoting the Village Soup model, which relied on getting local advertisers to pay for the right to post press releases and other messages alongside news content, along with a heavy focus on aggregating citizen content. Village Soup’s peak moment probably came in 2007, when it received a $885,000 Knight News Challenge grant to create an open source version of Village Soup’s underlying software.

Online origins

Anderson began his experiment in local news in the late 1990s, when he launched a website that would eventually become VillageSoup.com. The idea was to facilitate online interaction between members of the community, including giving advertisers a way to interact directly with potential customers. Here’s how Anderson explained it in a 2007 piece for Nieman Reports:

If we didn’t get their buy-in and support, we knew we wouldn’t have a sustainable way to share news and information for people who live in these places. So we created browser-based tools to help the business people answer simple, frequently asked questions, such as: What are your specials today? What waterfront property is on the market? What are your business hours? Are you available?

Gary Kebbel, now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, was Knight’s journalism program director at the time of its grant. He says Anderson was way ahead of his time even in 2007. “In terms of the development of online community and social media, 2007 is like 1990. It was just so long ago,” Kebbel said. “The grant was made based on the fact that Village Soup had a business model that we hadn’t seen anybody else have.”

It was a time when “hyperlocal was sort of the ‘in’ word,” he said. “They were very local and close to their community, so we thought they would also have particular expertise in advertising. That’s still the Holy Grail that has not been found: How do online news sites get community advertisers?”

Anderson’s model also involved taking advantage of print. First, that meant creating two print newspapers to republish some of the material produced by Village Soup websites in Maine. Then, in 2008, he purchased six struggling weekly newspapers in the region to put more of the ad market under one roof. As he told CJR in 2010: “Print plays a very important role. It does something for advertisers that online will never do. And print does something for readers that is going to be hard for online to ever do.” Whatever the motive, the timing was terrible, buying flailing weeklies on the eve of the recession. But at least one Maine journalist, Down East magazine’s Al Diamon, has doubts there was ever much of a business there: “In retrospect, Anderson’s ever-changing vision of what he wanted to accomplish never coalesced into a viable business plan. Managing by mercurial changes rarely results in progress, no matter what the economy looks like.”

Kebbel says he’s not sure whether anyone actually used the open source software that Village Soup produced with the grant money. (It was last updated in 2009; the most recent release has been downloaded less than 200 times.) But Kebbel praised the company for finding an additional revenue stream by also offering a premium iteration of the platform. A Village Soup website lists nine sites that use the premium service. The publisher of one such site, Delaware’s Cape Gazette, says the “folks at Village Soup” had assured him that the service would continue, even with the closure of the Maine newspapers. “My understanding is that it’s not going to affect the outlets that are using the Village Soup platform,” Dennis Forney said. “They tell me that I shouldn’t worry about our platform, and so far I’m taking it at face value.”

Filling the news hole

In the statement he posted online, Anderson says he’s “confident that others will step forward” to fill that void that Village Soup leaves behind in Maine. And it appears that’s already started to happen.

Nathan Greenleaf, the owner of a Maine-based commercial refrigeration company, launched a website called Pen Bay Today on Sunday as a way to help the community “move forward” post-Soup. He says the site has had more than 14,000 hits since it went live (and is quoting Shakespeare to rally support). Greenleaf told me he’s willing to invest about $35,000 in the project, but that his understanding of journalism comes primarily from “noir books and movies.” He’s hoping to find reporters who will “work for nothing” at first.

And it appears the president of another Midcoast Maine weekly newspaper will purchase Village NetMedia’s assets and revive most of them. Reade Brower, founder and president of The Free Press, has signed a letter of intent and tells the Bangor Daily News he plans to revive two of the newspapers as soon as next week, closing the others.

                                   
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  • Dennis Forney

    Adding to my comments above, I’d like to say that the Village Soup model continues to work very well for us.  We are a twice-weekly, paid print publication and the Village Soup web platform is an excellent complement for our readers and advertisers. Considering our print product, our electronic edition with iPad app, and our Village Soup edition, our advertising reach has never been greater.   I believe the Village Soup model will continue to proliferate for one simple reason: it works.

  • Earl Brechlin

    One point the article didn’t touch on is that Village Soup had strong print competitors, as well as web content providers in several of his markets. Those operations are still going strong suggesting that it wasn’t just that the Village Soup content was ahead of its time but rather that it failed to deliver compared to traditional platforms

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.abbott Stephen Abbott

    As a former newspaper reporter, I find it disappointing, but not surprising, that Mr. Greenleaf, the self-proclaimed newspaper publisher who gained his knowledge of news reporting from “noir books and movies,”  would offer nothing in the way of salary to real reporters for his new venture. This disturbing trend of de-valuing the profession of news gathering fails to inform an increasingly ill-informed public. Attitudes like his drive people out of the profession and creates not newspapers, but mere Ad Sheets, with a few biased, poorly-written news thrown in between the ads. 

  • Tracy @ WSB

    AAAUGHHH. Why do so many stories STILL include something like this excerpt from above: “That’s still the Holy Grail that has not been found: How do online news sites get community advertisers?” … What do you mean it hasn’t been found? There’s a multitude of us online-news sites out here with plenty of community advertisers. If you provide the content people need/want/like – and that’s NOT aggregation, robowriting, amateur writing – they will use your service, and if they use your service, businesses will want to advertise to connect with them. It’s sooooo simple. It’s not a holy grail. I can’t speak for Village Soup but I have seen chain hyperfauxcal enterprises with lousy content and little advertising … the latter is a given because of the former.

  • Scott

    Another great return on investment for the Knight News Challenge. They really know how to pick em.

  • http://www.davosnewbies.com lknobel

    Tracy is absolutely right. There are many independent local sites that are doing extremely well for community advertising. But most of us are not spending our time at future-of-news conferences because we’re much too busy running 24/7 local sites. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we’re under the radar as a result. 

  • http://twitter.com/kaelgoodman Kael Goodman

    I hope that maybe at some point we can hear more about what Richard meant by “our investment in new products created severe financial challenges”. Looking at the VillageSoup technology stack (http://www.villagesoup.com/enterprise.php), it seems that the technology choices made are not common for the web, and would be expensive to maintain without a large base of customers… maybe they jumped in too early, before other open source CMSs (like WordPress) both reduced the cost and increased the capabilities of web publishing.. maybe they invested too much in solving a problem that was solved better elsewhere.. and this was a contributing factor to running out of resources..  

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Thanks for this, Tracy and Lance. But let me ask you this, as someone who grew up in a town with what Bob Putnam would call low social capital: How much of WSB and Berkeleyside’s success comes from the communities they’re in?

    I ask, honestly, primarily because it’s telling that most of the success stories thus far seem to have been in college towns or cities with unusually strong civic networks (Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Seattle, etc.). Is the reason we haven’t seen that model spread to Topeka, Kansas or Rayne, Louisiana or El Dorado, Arkansas that people just haven’t seen the path you’ve found or is it that part of the model for success involved a certain kind of community?

    (That’s a completely honest question, by the way: as someone who grew up in a poor small town but now lives in Cambridge, I’m honestly curious about how to get a model that works in places where they haven’t found much footing.)

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Thanks for this, Tracy and Lance. But let me ask you this, as someone who grew up in a town with what Bob Putnam would call low social capital: How much of WSB and Berkeleyside’s success comes from the communities they’re in?

    I ask, honestly, primarily because it’s telling that most of the success stories thus far seem to have been in college towns or cities with unusually strong civic networks (Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Seattle, etc.). Is the reason we haven’t seen that model spread to Topeka, Kansas or Rayne, Louisiana or El Dorado, Arkansas that people just haven’t seen the path you’ve found or is it that part of the model for success involved a certain kind of community?

    (That’s a completely honest question, by the way: as someone who grew up in a poor small town but now lives in Cambridge, I’m honestly curious about how to get a model that works in places where they haven’t found much footing.)

  • Michelle Ferrier

     Joshua, I think you’re right that these models tend to work best where there is high social capital and potential advertising revenue to support the print and online products.

    We need sustainable models that work in “media deserts” — places that lack access to fresh news and information — just because they tend to be low-income, rural, low social capital, limited access to technologies, low broadband adoption, etc. So how can we create a media model that isn’t based on advertising revenue, but is supported as a “utility” for community engagement, information and democratic processes?

    These public/private partnerships or social entrepreneurship models may not be as prevalent, but need to be explored and tested as well in order for everyone to be part of public discourse and decisionmaking.

    Dr. Michelle Ferrier
    Associate Professor, Elon University
    Principal Investigator: Media Deserts Project
    http://michelleferrier.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/the-media-deserts-project-part-of-the-media-desertsnews-oasis-project/

  • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

    Ditto Tracy.