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March 13, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

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.

POSTED     March 13, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
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