Syndicated Multi-site Models
“Is it traditional journalism? No, and we’re not pretending” it is. “It’s a way for people to talk to each other without all the filters and spins.”
Village Soup, founded by former textbook publisher Richard Anderson in 1997, employs a dozen journalists who cover two areas of about 50,000 people each around the town of Belfast and the Camden-Rockland area of Maine. They contribute to what Anderson describes as a news and shopping site that allows citizens to search for local merchandise across personal classifieds and business inventories. Citizens currently can browse for purchases through the site’s database of local businesses, primarily Realtors. Businesses are charged for listings and given the tools to create pages that they can change daily to highlight sales, or perhaps a restaurant’s evening dinner special. About a quarter of the ad revenue comes through the online product, the rest from the print weekly.
Anderson’s goal is to create a platform, Village Soup Common, to be used by locally owned community network sites around the world. Although the sites would solicit and run citizen-generated news and information and photography, Anderson believes professional journalism is key to attracting advertisers.
Your Hub was launched by the Rocky Mountain News throughout its circulation area in April 2005 and is now 44 local web sites, with citizen-generated content fed from the sites into 15 weekly zoned print editions. The company now syndicates Your Hub in eight states and expects more expansion. The sites, dominated by upbeat “chicken dinner” news, link to local professionally produced articles, highlight featured bloggers and offer comprehensive community announcements and listings of government, cultural, small business and other institutions.
“There are the Googles and Craigslists of the world - they can set up local sites in whatever city they want by flipping a couple of switches,” editor Travis Henry said. “The benefit we have over the Googles and Craigslists is that we are still local because local newspapers are running the sites.”
Each hub is hosted by a local editor who blogs and posts photos but also solicits community contributions. “You can call that person, e-mail her, she lives in and is a journalist in the community,” Henry said. “Is it traditional journalism? No, and we’re not pretending” it is. “It’s a way for people to talk to each other without all the filters and spins.”
Co-founder Mark Potts objects to the characterization he’s heard of Backfence.com as a “local site-in-a-box.” Backfence was conceived to be a network of hyperlocal community sites built entirely on citizen-generated offerings and supported by advertising revenue. The company, with $3 million in venture capital support, launched sites in McLean and Reston, Virginia, in May 2005, then spread to other Washington-area suburbs and to affluent communities outside Chicago and the San Francisco area. The company’s goal was to re-create the site in more than a dozen metropolitan areas with approximately 10 local sites in each area, but in January 2007 it announced a downsizing and restructuring.
The site model had one editor handling the home pages for every five sites in a regional market, along with full-time community relations specialists in each market and one ad salesperson for each two communities.
The sites are dominated by blogs and local conversation. “It’s not journalism. It’s content,” Potts said. “We’ve gone back and forth about using the word ‘news’ because it freaks out people who aren’t journalists. ... To people from the outside [what’s on the site] looks incredibly mundane, but if you’re in those communities it’s incredibly important.”
Potts said, “We think the model looks like the newspaper business down the road - [with] a handful of companies doing this around the country, and we don’t bump into each other at all.”
WickedLocal.com is the central portal to a planned network of hyperlocal community web sites, the first launched in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in March 2006. A project of GateHouse Media, which owns six dailies and more than 100 weeklies in Massachusetts alone, the sites are intended to weave together professional and citizen journalism and to promote community discussion. The citizen journalism section also includes blogs, photos and interactive discussion forums.
The site has two online editors. As the network expands, much of the responsibility for the web sites is being pushed out to the “print” editors, who are increasingly becoming multimedia editors. On the citizen-journalism side, the online editors monitor forums, assist citizen journalists and reach out into the community both to urge participation in the sites and determine how the sites can be made most useful to people in the communities.
The site is supported by several forms of advertising, perhaps most innovative is Google-type advertising associated with a robust search tool for local markets.
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