Poor Management Does In Village Soup
No online miracles: The Village Soup idea began back in the late 1990s as a hyper-local news Web site in Knox County.
That didn’t make money.
It expanded to Waldo County.
That didn’t make money, either.
It tried a paywall.
Still in the red.
It started print newspapers to compete with Courier Publications' established publications, the Courier Gazette in Rockland, the Camden Herald and the Republican Journal in Belfast.
That didn’t turn a profit.
In 2008, Village Soup bought the much larger Courier operation, figuring it could reduce competition and finally see some black ink.
The recession made sure that didn’t happen.
Saddled with debt, Village Soup reduced the Rockland paper from thrice weekly to twice to once. It closed its printing plant in Rockland. Then, it merged the Gazette with the Herald. Then, it changed the names of the Rockland and Belfast papers.
Along the way, Soup owner Richard Anderson somehow convinced the Knight Foundation to give him a grant for almost $900,000 to develop free software allowing other newspapers to imitate Soup’s allegedly innovative idea of charging businesses to post press releases and comments in the middle section of its website without any editorial interference. In 2010, Anderson told Columbia Journalism Review that the company was earning over twenty percent of its income from the online version, an unusually high number for the industry. Or, possibly, an unusually low figure from the print side. CJR never checked. Nor did it come up with figures on how widely used the software Knight funded actually was.
Instead, the article by freelance journalist Murray Carpenter (it doesn’t seem to be available online except to subscribers) referred to more traditional weekly newspapers as “dinosaurs,” even though most of them were surviving the recession and even prospering. And it quoted Anderson as saying he was “betting long-term.”
As recently as last October, Anderson was still selling his model, and CJR was still buying. But by then, it was just public relations. The reality was that the Soup program wasn’t working and probably never had.
On March 9, Anderson posted a short letter on his Web sites announcing the company was ceasing operations effective immediately. Employees, some fifty-six of them, had been informed only at the close of business that day. Freelancers (of whom I was one) were not notified.
Anderson blamed “profound changes in the newspaper publishing business, a weak economy and our investment in new products” for the abrupt shutdown. He said attempts to financially restructure the company had failed.
According to several industry insiders, some of the void the Soup collapse has created will likely be filled. The midcoast, currently served only by the Free Press, a free-distribution weekly based in Rockland, is “prime territory for a traditional local weekly,” according to one publisher. “I’d expect somebody to make a move in Knox and Waldo pretty quickly,” said another print executive.
The outlook for replacing Soup’s other two papers doesn’t appear as bright. The Capital Weekly in Augusta struggled even before recession hit. “It’s not an attractive market,” said a business person familiar with the area. “The [daily Kennebec Journal] soaks up what little revenue there is.” And in Bar Harbor, competition from the Mount Desert Islander drew circulation and advertising from the Soup’s Bar Harbor Times, reducing that once-dominant weekly to an also-ran.
In retrospect, Anderson’s ever-changing vision of what he wanted to accomplish never coalesced into a viable business plan. Managing by mercurial changes rarely results in progress, no matter what the economy looks like.
Comic censorship: The “Doonesbury” comic strip is running a series this week on anti-abortion laws in Texas and other states. Several papers across the country have decided not to run the pieces.
The Bangor Daily News added a one-sentence notice to a March 10 Associated Press story announcing it was chickening out. The Portland Press Herald ran substitute strips without explanation. But the Morning Sentinel, owned by the same company as the Press Herald, published the first of the controversial comics on March 12.
Some newspaper editors said they were pulling “Doonesbury” because the content wasn’t suitable for children, which is surprising, considering that children don’t read newspapers. They get their news – and their uncensored comics – online.
It’s not easy covering yourself: But staff writer Amy Calder did a fine job of it in the March 12 Morning Sentinel in her piece on the financial consequences of the city of Waterville buying the newspaper’s building. Calder’s carefully balanced piece clearly shows the consequences for taxpayers – many of them negative – if Waterville purchases the downtown landmark from MaineToday Media, the Sentinel’s parent company, to use as a new police station.
Given MaineToday’s precarious finances, pointing out the flaws in its sales pitch couldn’t have been comfortable for Calder, but she handled it like the pro she is.
TV sale: WPXT-TV in Portland, the local outlet for the CW network, has been sold, according to an online report. The story says Tyche Broadcasting purchased the station from New Age Media, for just $75,000, a remarkably low price, even if it doesn’t include the facilities. The report also notes that WPME-TV, which carries MY TV programming, is going to be sold soon, although it doesn’t say who’s doing the buying. WPXT and WPME have been jointly operated by New Age, although the latter is owned by MPS Media.
From Times to policy: The Lewiston Sun Journal reports that Peter Steele, editor and founder of the weekly Twin City Times in Lewiston and Auburn, is leaving that publication to become communications director for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an influential conservative think tank. His wife, Laurie Steele, will succeed him as editor at the Times.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.