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How to build a successful local news web site (Hint: Don’t start with your newspaper)

In an article written for Harvard’s Nieman Reports special issue on Local News, Richard Anderson, founder of the award-winning Village Soup
web sites argues that most newspapers get it all wrong when they go on
the web because they think of the site as a performance, a stage show,
while his "community host" model combines that "show" with something
like a trade show floor where everyone can gather to share ideas,
browse and buy.
Here’s Richard:

Vslogo
The conventional community newspaper approach to
going online is analogous to an event production; just as a star
performs on stage, reporters “perform” by providing compelling
narrative and factual reporting for an audience of readers. Similarly,
just as advertisers are eager to display their names around the concert
venue, newspaper Web site advertisers use banners and buttons to
compete for the attention of the gathered readers. In contrast, our
community host model is more akin to a trade show.
Attendees learn from
keynote addresses and sessions, then share ideas, knowledge and views
during breaks, luncheons and receptions, and shop with exhibitors, who
answer their questions about latest offerings and features. The
community host model assumes active seekers who are looking to learn
from our reporters, to share with their neighbors, and to shop with
their community business operators, professionals and trades people.

His company began their local news sites on the web, and later began
producing print products (i.e. newspapers) to meet their communities
needs (and crush their competition). Anderson has something like 13
employees producing professional stories and photos and ads – the rest
of his content is the community talking to itself.

Does the formula work?
His print products are now #2 and #3 in a six paper market – where all
the other papers have been around for over 100 years. He says that
users of Village Soup use it a lot —75 per cent of their users visit at
least 10 times a month; 32 per cent of their users visit at least 200
times a month or nearly 7 times a day. Village Soup won one of last
year’s Knight Foundation News Challenge awards and will be producing an open source template for others to adopt in their own communities. I want me one of those.
His sites are worth visiting, and his philosophy well worth studying. Visit Village Soup here, read Anderson’s report here.

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