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March 5, 2010, 10 a.m.

Soitu.es couldn’t find the business model to match its content creativity

[Laura Bennett is currently on a Fulbright grant in Madrid to research citizen journalism and the democratization of the mainstream Spanish media. She filed this report about Spain’s late (but still talked-about) online news startup, Soitu.es. —Josh]

Spanish news site Soitu.es launched in December 2007 to considerable fanfare. Its homepage boasted flashy graphics and the lofty slogan “no mass media,” a play on the Spanish phrase “no más media” (“no more media”). Within months, Soitu was honored by the Society for News Design and eventually copped two Online News Association awards. The ONA praised its “underlying philosophy of sharing, linking and audience-focused engagement.” It had half a million unique visitors a month and accessed another two million users monthly through its third-party widgets.

In Spain — where the politicized national press has drawn public skepticism in recent years and newspaper circulation and Internet usage are both markedly below most of the country’s European counterparts’ — Soitu was widely regarded as a breath of fresh air.

But in October 2009, the site shuttered after just 22 months. Its main financial backer and principal shareholder, the Spanish bank BBVA, had pulled the plug.

“Soitu was an experiment, a new media laboratory,” founder Gumersindo Lafuente told me. “We have always believed in the socialization of information, but often when people comment on the news, it’s just pure noise. We wanted to capitalize on the whole flow of relevant information that society can contribute using tools that make this influx controllable.”

Soitu hinged on audience participation. Contributors whose photography, articles, or essays were selected for the homepage received 20 euros. Soitu’s web developers created a slew of original widgets that users could post on their own websites and blogs for free — an attempt, in Lafuente’s words, “to keep conquering spaces on the web with the Soitu brand without spending money on advertising.” Utoi was a homegrown microblogging social network — intended to help journalists rummage for story ideas — that allowed multimedia to be embedded directly in posts and could scan text and suggest tags for entries. And the streamlined crowd-aided news aggregator El Selector let hundreds of collaborators from different spheres of the web (tech, medicine, politics, arts, et al) flag stories that they’d read and liked.

“The idea was to share the task of deciding what was news with the readers,” said Lafuente, who previously ran the digital edition of Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Soitu” is a fusion of the Spanish words “Soy” and “tú,” or “I am you.”

Soitu’s technological tools were groundbreaking. But its business plan, Lafuente admits, was not.

An overly traditional advertising model and excessive dependence on a single investor — the bank BBVA owned 49 percent — proved to be Soitu’s downfall. “We just had neither the size nor the time to find a focus [besides advertising],” Lafuente said. Developing its specialized technology was Soitu’s principal cost, but the relatively plush Madrid headquarters and large in-house staff of editors, journalists, web developers, and graphic designers were also considerable expenses. When the global economic crisis knocked Soitu to its knees, BBVA backed out and Lafuente struggled to track down another investor, to no avail.

So what would he do differently, if he could launch Soitu all over again?

“Clearly I would build a structure that was lighter on expenses,” he said. “I would choose a structure that was lighter on staff with more freelancers. With a product that was more ‘arrevistado’ [formatted similar to a magazine] with two parallel flows of information, one very up-to-date and another with more of its own news and deeper reporting. Nothing in between the two. And fewer structural costs (the office, etc).”

But for the most part, he added, the site itself — the technological tools, the branding — would be the same.

“The most important factor is to build a brand and to know how to speak to your audience,” Lafuente said. “I still think that advertising is the main investment and that to opt for other investments, you first have to cultivate your product and your audience.”

Spanish media experts seemed to agree that despite Soitu’s innovative design, its business plan was woefully shortsighted.

“Soitu was a great spectacle, but it wasn’t a realistic spectacle,” said Concha Edo, a journalism professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the author of several studies on the impact of the Internet on the media in Spain.

In the Spanish press, Soitu was elegized like a beloved politician who had died an untimely death. An editorial about the site’s closure in Spanish newspaper ABC was titled “Requiem for an example of creativity.” El País described Soitu’s collapse as the end of “one of the first completely digital media projects in Spain.”

For Lafuente, there will be other opportunities to experiment. In January he was appointed managing editor of El País, where he oversees elpais.com.

“We knew we were doing something new and therefore risky with Soitu,” Lafuente said. “But that was the goal — to do something different.”

POSTED     March 5, 2010, 10 a.m.
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