After Shuttering, Village Soup Serves Up a Living Digital Legacy

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Less than two weeks after Village Soup was abruptly shuttered by its ambitious but financially exhausted owner, the print and digital mini-conglomerate of Midcoast Maine is being resurrected. The company’s new owner, Reade Brower, who publishes Midcoast’s Free Press, praised the Village Soup publications — which he competed against — and said he wanted to return them to the public as intact as possible.

Brower hopes to have the Village Soup website and two of the print weekly papers — in the communities of Rockland and Belfast — back in operation within 10 days. The Camden weekly may be re-launched later. The communities, with their well-preserved heritages going back to the 18th century, are popular resort destinations.

Brower bought the Village Soup assets from First National Bank of Damariscotta in Waldoboro, to which Village Soup’s founder, Richard M. Anderson, was indebted in his unsuccessful struggle to keep publishing. Anderson had poured millions of dollars of his own money into what was a personal dream as much as it was a business.

Anderson started his career as a teacher. Dissatisfied with the available classroom texts, he created his own, which were enlivened with rich narratives of integrated text and visuals. From the royalties he earned from the sale of his Ligature text publishing business, Anderson started Village Soup. His initial investment was $5 million, and that was followed by more money, including what he borrowed from the bank.

While Anderson ends up with nothing from his 15-year investment, his dream of creating a print-digital community in Midcoast — and taking it national — will live on.  New owner Brower will restore the original names to the Village Soup weeklies, one of which goes back nearly two centuries; will go slow on staffing up; and will erect a model paywall on the website. But he said he’ll maintain Anderson’s basic publishing model. “We want to give something back to the community that was successful,” he said.

Brower was especially enthusiastic about the Village Soup Web partnerships with 24 local publishing operations in communities in Massachusetts and Iowa.  “They are our ambassadors,” he said. “Every one of them said they want to continue using the Village Soup platform.”

Anderson created the small network from a $885,000 Knight Foundation News Challenge grant in 2007. He had hoped to build a bigger network, with international ambitions.

Brower wants platform licensing to be central to his revenue engine. “When we get to 30 licensees, then maybe 40, we’ll see how fast we can grow,” he said. One of his immediate challenges will be deciding how many reporters to hire for the combined print-digital operations in Midcoast.  He acknowledges his tabloid Free Press can’t be the model.  “We cover some stories in depth,” he  said, “but we don’t cover fires and every public meeting, so we don’t need as many reporters” as the Village Soup publications.

Anderson came to Midcoast Maine to build a universal publishing model for the digital era that included traditional print as well as the new Web.  A combined editorial staff would produce news for both platforms.  Content would be augmented by contributions from the community.  A decade ahead of what’s now happening in the digital space, Anderson said businesses would be invited “to bring their unfettered, unfiltered daily news and information to the community” by purchasing space.

Aiming to sell Village Soup to publishers elsewhere, Anderson claimed 21 percent of the revenue of his Midcoast publications came from his websites, more than quadruple the industry average.”  (Critics pointed out that statistic was misleading because it was based on a small base of revenues from Anderson’s struggling print properties.)  Anderson also said “32% of online visitors have sited more than 201 times, 73% more than nine times.”Finally, he said the Village Soup platform license eliminated the need for other software to cover the cost of front- and back-end operations.

Ironically, Village Soup seems to be working better at its licensees than it did at Anderson’s Midcoast properties.  He made his top-dollar purchase of the six Courier Publications papers in 2008, just when the recession began to shrink real estate and other advertising.  On top of that, he scrapped the historic names of the papers — one of them dating to 1829, the other to 1846 — and then reduced publication to once a week. In 2009, he imposed a 10% cut in staff payroll costs.  Then he had to close his printing operation, and, most recently, sell Village Soup’s headquarters.

It’s easy to look at Village Soup as a failure – as some critics have.  But new owner Reade Brower is not planning to scrap Anderson’s basic model – to “extends commercial and individual interaction into the digital virtual community.”

That objective, expressed in the virtually the same basic words, describes the model that’s being built at local and hyperlocal publishing sites throughout the U.S.  Quite a legacy for Anderson to leave — and for Brower to embrace.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.