The last time I checked up on the much-talked-about Village Soup experiment in community publishing in Midcoast Maine, it was a burned-out pot which gave off an acrid odor. Village Soup’s founder, Richard Anderson, having lost millions of dollars of his fortune trying to create a sustainable revenue model for print and online community papers, abruptly shut down all operations at his mini-conglomerate in March. The closure put 56 people out of work with no severance and left two counties of 80,000 population without their main sources of community news.
But still there was hope. Reade Brower, publisher of the one local publication that Anderson didn’t snatch up — the older, free and unpretentious tabloid Free Press — bought the wreckage of the Village Soup and set about figuring out how to succeed where Anderson had failed.
Today, seven months later, Village Soup is again a simmering, well-stocked pot of news for Midcoasters in Knox and Waldo counties. Brower, with Yankee shrewdness, is making a go of Village Soup through a strategy that uses some of the same key ingredients that Anderson brought to his mix — but also adding a few important new ones.
Brower retained the ingenious paid “briefs” that Anderson introduced — $24.95 per week for businesses and $14.95 for nonprofits, congregations and individuals — and runs close to 400 of them weekly, online and in print, at the three titles he acquired. (The briefs, which can be about everything from an acupuncture forum sponsored by four practitioners to a “Congratulations to Robert Butler, my dad and lifetime hunting partner,” arelaid out in their own column so they won’t be confused with actual news.) Brower also continues to license the premium-priced Village Soup publishing software that Anderson developed and sold to print publishers elsewhere who wanted to extend their reach online but lacked the tools to do so. Brower has added one licensee, bringing the total to 15.
Just as Anderson did, Brower is using print publishing as a cross-sell in the two-county Midcoast market. Just as Anderson did, Brower is investing in editorial quality in his recent acquisitions. (If there’s a difference in editorial, it’s that Brower emphasizes traditional, harder news coverage over Anderson’s magazine-type approach.)
Brower has added one all-important feature to the business side of his Village Soup recipe: Online readers now have to pay for most of the news – excluding the first paragraphs of articles, as well as obituaries and the paid briefs (to guarantee they’ll get the maximum number of clicks). “It’s only 8 cents a day!” says Brower. “Per month, that’s about what you spend on one double latte at Starbucks.”
When you stack up those 8 cents every day of the year for about 5,000 online subscribers, they amount to $150,000. The online subscriptions — Brower hates to call them a “paywall” since readers do get some content free — achieved much more: They stabilized the paid print weeklies that are part of the Village Soup mix, helping to increase their total circulation from 9,500 to 11,000 in the past year.
Brower’s introduction of online subscriptions is a revealing clue to how he and Anderson pursued a common goal with radically different lines of vision.
Anderson’s Village Soup had a big picture, and every publishing decision he made was rationalized by how it fit into that picture, which was painted more with the bright tints of his sometimes grandiloquent theorizing than the hard lines of experience. Thus, Anderson spent millions in the previous decade buying three competing print weeklies — overpriced and underperforming — and then junking their 19th-century nameplates for his Village Soup name and, most maddening of all, making them compete with his free Village Soup website. Anderson liked to call himself a “disrupter.” But most of his major disruptions were inflicted on himself.
Brower saw the big picture (and is a huge admirer of Anderson’s branding) but his angle of vision always includes what he learned from long experience – dating from 1985 – as founding publisher of an upstart free weekly in a market dominated by long-established paid papers. Brower had watched market forces set in motion by Anderson’s big-picture spending play out in his own household: “My wife Martha would spend night after night reading the free Village Soup online,” he said. “What incentive did she have to buy the weekly Village Soup paper?”
It got worse when Anderson, having spent most of his fortune trying to making his big-picture pay model work, was forced to cut back on editorial quality. That drove away more print subscribers, and meant Anderson wouldn’t be able to make a business case for online subscriptions, something he reportedly had considered early on.
Counting all his revenue streams — online and print subscriptions, paid business and nonprofit briefs, display ads and licensing for publishing software — Brower said he has achieved, in a few months’ time, the sustainability that eluded Anderson in 14 years. Since Brower acquired all of the Village Soup properties from Anderson’s bank at a fraction of the cost Anderson incurred during his buying spree in the previous decade, he’s not burdened by heavy debt service.
“Everything is very steady,” Brower said. “The money is good.”
There’s one more ingredient that Brower is adding to the Village Soup pot. In a back-to-the future move, he plans to reintroduce paperboys and -girls to distribute the three print weeklies whose vintage nameplates he restored. That may not be a big picture, but in Midcoast Maine, it should be a darn pretty one.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.