Finally, someone makes hyperlocal pay
By Richard M. Anderson
Is the newspaper business sustainable? Not any more. Is the community network business sustainable? Yes. And at the hyperlocal level.
Some people think we’re crazy. We’ve spent the past 12 years developing a community network business. In this model, we take one step backward and two steps forward.
We've stepped back and re-focused on hyperlocal population centers of 20,000 to 50,000 people in four communities in Maine. Why? Because it is in these places, whether urban neighborhoods, suburban villages or ex-urban towns, that citizens are most closely engaged in the practice of democracy at its root level.
This re-focus is possible because the Internet has reversed the flow of information. In the old days, major daily newspapers brought world, national and state news to hyperlocal population centers. Now, reporters, citizens and businesses in these centers share their news and information across the globe directly. No daily paper to monitor and filter the flow.
Our community network model consists of two products – branded web sites we call VillageSoup and separately branded weekly newspapers. We have four newspapers in Rockland, Belfast, Bar Harbor and Augusta. And each one has its own VillageSoup website.
Our community network model began in1997 as an online publication. In 2003, we introduced two weekly papers-of-record to compete with four legacy weeklies. In 2008, we acquired the weeklies, which each were 100 years old.
Our products enhance each other. Professional journalists report news as it happens on the website. Weekly, this news is contextualized, analyzed and printed in the newspaper. Citizens and businesses post timely news and information online and many of their posts also appear in the paper. And two-thirds of our web sites’ front pages are filled with citizen and business posts. We call them, “Neighbors growing together.” Our community networks are the trusted source of news and views.
The most distinctive component of our model are the sponsored postings (illustrated below) that businesses can buy. The posts, which run right next to the ordinary editorial content, are not controlled by us. No fetters, no filters.
In the two most mature of the four markets we serve, the sponsored blogs help generate a large portion of the online sales that collectively generate 19% of our $2.5 million in annual advertising revenues. So far as I know, no other newspaper, not even The New York Times has been able to do this.
The Knight Foundation recognized the value in our business model and in 2007 awarded VillageSoup an $885,000 News Challenge Grant. We are using these funds to redeploy our platform as open-source code for downloading and operating at sites independent from VillageSoup.
We also offer entrepreneurs and legacy newspaper companies the opportunity to join VillageSoup Common using our own variation of the open source code in conjunction with a suite of services from VillageSoup.
Here is how this model works. VillageSoup handles the technical stuff and provides the brand and its promotion. A VillageSoup Common wiki provides a repository of experiences and ideas which empowers small operators to learn and advance in ways not achievable as stand-alone entities.
So, one step back, re-focusing on hyperlocal communities of 20,000 to 50,000 people, and two steps forward – creating hyperlocal community networks sourcing the community, bundling professional, amateur and business content – and generating new revenue from businesses using our platform to inform and serve their customers in the neighborhood and beyond.
While there is much to learn, we are convinced that this evolving community network model will soon be applied to hyperlocal communities around the world.