Ten years ago, we began an experiment with a local Web-based news and information site called VillageSoup.com. We premised the site on our view about how local communities would use the Internet to enhance community life, and it was grounded in the belief that the Internet was the place people go for answers. VillageSoup chose to target what is now described as “hyperlocal” markets. We define hyperlocal as the traditional weekly newspaper markets typically serving population and service centers of approximately 30,000 people. We began with two counties along MidCoast Maine, each with 40,000 population. Rockland, Camden and Belfast are the primary service centers.

Our initial efforts focused on creating ways for small businesses, professionals and people in the trades to use our Web site to enhance their competitiveness by better serving their communities. 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?

Just as business owners do not rely solely on catchy phrases and signs in real space, we sought to take advantage of the Internet’s answer-providing characteristics to allow them to serve customers in ways similar to the way they serve them in their place of business. Using our software and Web site to post her restaurant’s specials, one of our business members tripled her luncheon servings after three weeks of postings. A nonprofit quickly sold out two performances that were less than half-sold five days out.

In our online village, we’ve created a virtual main street and town square, where every business can afford to locate and where community members can shop. Shopping on VillageSoup isn’t likely to be an online transaction; it is building awareness and offering in-depth and comparative information. Transactions happen in face-to-face encounters down the street or across town.

There was a day when an elderly gentleman failed to return from his regular Sunday drive around the countryside, accompanied by his small dog. Police asked VillageSoup to post a notice about the search. VillageSoup responded with two prominently placed stories, and a citizen of a rural town responded with her sighting of the gentleman’s car turning down a logging road. Police immediately found the gentleman [in truck at left], dehydrated and lying in a ditch with his dog by his side. Another story was posted that he was alive, and people in the community breathed a sigh of relief. The weekly paper was still two days away from publication. Photo by David Munson/VillageSoup.

With interaction an essential Web ingredient—and because we have a distinct advantage not being saddled with the beliefs and practices that drive traditional news organizations—our second focus was to encourage unfettered, unfiltered posting of events and ideas. We understand the power of many-to-many communication, and our offer to provide space in which people can communicate with one another was quickly embraced by those nearby as well as by those logging in from around the globe.

Gathering and immediately sharing news where there was otherwise only weekly news was our third focal point. Whether the news is a local tragedy or achievement, election returns or just the opportunity to share images of a beautiful view, our professional journalists make information and news available to others when it happens. No more waiting until next week’s paper.

To launch our news efforts, we hired as our first reporter a former bureau chief who worked for one of the state’s dailies. From there, we built a team of reporters and editors; now, we have 13. Having begun as Web-only, stories are entered into the database ready and available for online publication. A copy manager schedules when a story is to go live online and assigns a story a page of the paper, if it is to appear in the paper. (Aside from our online news, we now publish two weekly paid subscription newspapers for residents in the communities associated with the Web site.) Our Web-based publishing system codes stories with XML tags for exporting to a page make-up system. These tags identify a story as breaking news, feature, or current news as well as labeling it according to traditional news sections and location. The system automatically codes stories including placing images uploaded by the reporter. Reporters take their own photos and are now beginning to shoot video and occasionally record audio. A regional network television reporter and cameraman work out of our office, and his daily feeds to two stations appear on our site as well.

We actively solicit bloggers from these communities while we also allow those who express an interest in blogging to log on and become bloggers. Member stories and comments appear without solicitation or active encouragement on the part of the Soup staff. Content is exclusively local.

This combination of professional, amateur and business content is proving to be successful, and VillageSoup has become an integral part of daily life in these Maine Coast communities.

Lessons Learned

The VillageSoup experiment has traveled along its 10-year road, and now our model is beginning to be shared across the industry. But as futurist Paul Saffo said, “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” A graph on Saffo’s Web site uses television to illustrate that full market adoption of a new media can take three to four decades.

Finding a sustainable business model for interactive distribution of news and information is essential. Consumers, no longer content to be mere spectators, want more control over content, while businesses want more than static display ads. Emerging technology is lowering financial barriers to entry, and this circumstance is challenging conventional entities that are slow to budge from their entrenched, highly vulnerable monopolies.

We believe the approach being followed by many traditional newspapers, in which they incrementally add new revenue generators to their news sites through alliances using products such as Yahoo!’s HotJobs, Google’s AdSense, and HomeTownStores will not create sufficient revenue to replace lost newspaper display ad revenue. The success of Google and Yahoo! are based on two factors local newspaper enterprises cannot enjoy. Their content is user generated, and their audience is worldwide. Thus their costs are low, and they can amass sizable revenue through pennies per click.

Finding a sustainable business model for interactive distribution of news and information is essential. Consumers, no longer content to be mere spectators, want more control over content, while businesses want more than static display ads.The VillageSoup experience convinces us that our community host model is taking full advantage of a new medium. The conventional community newspaper approach to going online is analogous to an event production; just as a star performs on stage, reporters “perform” by providing compelling narrative and factual reporting for an audience of readers. Similarly, just as advertisers are eager to display their names around the concert venue, newspaper Web site advertisers use banners and buttons to compete for the attention of the gathered readers. In contrast, our community host model is more akin to a trade show. Attendees learn from keynote addresses and sessions, then share ideas, knowledge and views during breaks, luncheons and receptions, and shop with exhibitors, who answer their questions about latest offerings and features. The community host model assumes active seekers who are looking to learn from our reporters, to share with their neighbors, and to shop with their community business operators, professionals and trades people.

After seven years of online presence—during which time VillageSoup built a highly regarded brand and online revenue five to 10 times that of most weekly newspaper Web sites—we introduced two weekly newspapers to compete directly with the legacy 100- plus year-old weeklies in our market. We did this to build relationships with traditional newspaper advertisers who were not ready to move to online activity and to fill a void being created by cost-cutting activities of the now distant-investor-owned four legacy newspapers. One of our new publications has already won general excellence awards in both the Maine Press Association and New England Press Association annual contests, and the other placed second in the Maine Press Association General Excellence category. Both papers within the short four-year time period rank number two and three in circulation among the area’s six paid-circulation weeklies.

VillageSoup visitor loyalty—the emerging metric of choice, replacing page views—is remarkably high. According to Google Analytics, 75 percent of the VillageSoup’s readers consistently visit more than 10 times per month; 32 percent visit more than 200 times per month. That means visitors are coming more than seven times per day. This speaks to the importance of user-generated content, since local breaking news is not happening seven times a day in these small markets. In VillageSoup’s local area, a bit more than half of those surveyed visit our Web site at least once each day, while only five percent said they visit competing news sites daily. When weather threatens, sirens blare, a heated municipal debate ensues, or a community celebration takes place, those numbers spike.

There is great dynamism in a community host Web site where everyone can participate and the flow of information is a two-way Main Street. As multimedia consultant and teacher Jane Ellen Stevens has observed, the Internet is a “solution-oriented medium: ask a question, get an answer.” VillageSoup is constructed with this in mind.

Richard M. Anderson is CEO and cofounder of VillageSoup and two community newspapers, the Knox County Times and Waldo County Citizen.

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