(Cross posted from ShiftLock, my tech column in the CNA paper, The Publisher)
How much are you spending on your online news site?
Whatever the number – $50,000 or $5,000,000 – think of that number for a second and then answer this question: if someone gave you (insert your big fat number here) to launch and run a brand new, innovative online news website to serve your community, would you really have chosen something so cluttered, confused, ugly and stuffed with yesterday’s news?
I doubt it.
But despite more than a decade of trying, most of us are locked into our old print habits, like “owning” our content, or believing we’re the experts, that people want to listen to us — rather than talk with us and each other. These habits are killing us.
While newspapers were early explorers on the web, we frittered away our lead in a foolish attempt to reproduce, not just our newspapers, but our old business model. We wasted more than a decade trying to get people to pay for content in a world where the digital explosion meant that the value of raw information was rapidly approaching zero, and the supply of advertising was expanding so rapidly its cost was dropping just as fast. All those years spent arguing whether we should charge for our newspaper content were wasted — because we were asking the wrong question.
As Howard Owens, director of digital publishing for Gatehouse Media reflected in a widely-circulated blog post a couple of years back – we would all have been far better off if we’d never put our newspapers online at all because then we would have asked ourselves the right question, namely: what does our community need online?
In the language of the American Press Institute’s bracing Newspaper Next reports, what jobs do they want done that we can do better than anyone else?
Here’s the jobs I want done as a reader:
- Find me good information – filter the flood.
- Give me useful, local news and information, fresh and fast — and make it dead easy for me to share, comment, add to and improve that information
- Give me my information when — and how — I want; via the web, widgets, web-based apps, mobile push and pull, and feeds
- Help me find and interact with businesses and services in my community and let me find customers for my own service, business, and products
- Let me see what other people in my community are doing and let me talk to them
Notice that the sites that are successful in extracting value from news — Google’s search engine, aggregators like Yahoo and MSNBC, Digg and Fark — are meeting several of those needs, while producing and owning almost NONE of the information they’re providing.
The fastest growing news web site today, and the 18th most popular, is the Huffington Post, a site which aggregates its version of the best political news from across the web and blends it with a smattering of original content and the best of over 1,000 members blogs.
Curate the web, find me good information, make it easy for me to share and participate — the Huffington Post does those brilliantly. And it has just announced plans to roll out local versions of its news and blog aggregation platform.
How many of those jobs are you doing for your community?
On company,Village Soup, has found a business model based on giving the content away for free, but charging money to create it.
Village Soup began life 10 years ago in rural Maine as an online business directory, not a news site. But owner Richard Anderson paid attention to what his community wanted and needed and eventually developed a radical three-pronged model for a community news site.
His summary of what people want to do online is deceptively simple: Learn, Share, Shop.
Anderson sees his sites as community platforms – more of a trade show than a professional performance, a place where people are free to wander and mix and mingle, businesses, individuals and organizations alike. His professional journalists gather news and information and report it. Members of the community share what they know – whether it’s births and deaths, garage sales, their opinions or ideas – heck even their movie and music reviews. Community groups post events, their own news and thoughts and ideas. And businesses post their information – sales events, new arrivals, how-to’s, their lunch and dinner specials.
All of that information is freely available to anyone — but only members can add to the information. Individuals pay a couple of dollars a week, non-profits pay $400-$500 a year, and business pay about $1,000 a year.
Businesses — local, regional, and national — can buy display advertising space as well, and some do, but the bedrock of the business model is the membership fees, the fixed utility costs if you will, of the whole community.
The model has been very successful – Anderson has said that while 70 per cent of the members visited the site daily, a third visited more than seven times a day. He’s even expanded it to create weekly newspapers (they come with your membership) in his communities, to capture advertisers that just don’t get the online thing.
The model has been so successful Anderson challenged and then bought out established community newspapers that had been on his turf for more than a century.
The model has been so successful he won a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant and is creating an open source version of Village Soup that other publishers will be able to use and adopt in their own communities. He’s expanded to four sites in Maine and another five in Georgia and New York hare poised to launch. And now he’s gone international – Wainwright, Alberta was recently announced as the site of the first Village Soup outlet in Canada.
It’s a smart, community-focused model that bears a very close look by anyone interested in figuring out what kind of business model might carry newspapers across the digital divide.
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