The past year has been a roller coaster for Midcoast advertisers and news consumers. At the beginning of 2012, there was a single entity – Village NetMedia –publishing newspapers and news websites for Knox and Waldo counties under the VillageSoup brand. Village NetMedia folded abruptly in March, leaving the region without a local news source, but the company’s news assets were swiftly acquired by a new owner and resumed publication after a gap of about three weeks. Then in September, former Village NetMedia employees launched a new competitor, the Penobscot Bay Pilot. From one news source, to zero, to two, all in a half a year. (Read more on the demise of Village NetMedia and the rebirth of the VillageSoup brand.)
The most obvious difference between the two competitors is format: the Pilot is strictly web-based, while Courier Publications (i.e., the VillageSoup group) publishes both news websites and traditional print newspapers. But perhaps a more fundamental difference is one of access: the Pilot is free to consumers, while the Soup‘s readers must pay to read both the print and the online editions.
“Our readers can navigate freely on our site as well as share any story,” says Terri Mahoney, one of the Pilot’s two sales directors. “There’s no barrier between our website and the reader. We want our readers to have the best online experience.”
Janis Bunting, the Pilot‘s other sales director, agrees, adding that Penobscot Bay Pilot is compatible with social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. “Why would you want to ‘share’ something when you know that others may not be able to read it on the other end?“ she asks, noting that when Soup readers post news feeds to Facebook, only the first few lines are visible to others. (VillageSoup readers must either subscribe to the website or pay a per-article fee to access the full text. And while any reader can post comments on Pilot stories, only paid subscribers can do the same on the VillageSoup sites.)
Both companies offer programs in which advertisers can post unlimited news items in a special section of the site and link their business to a hosted web page. Among the advantages of the Pilot‘s Affiliate program, according to Mahoney, are larger photo galleries, the ability to upload video, tighter social media integration, and no long-term contract. Pilot Affiliates can participate on a month-to-month basis, while the Soup‘s “bizMembers” must subscribe for a minimum of three months. A monthly arrangement, says Mahoney, can be especially attractive to organizations whose promotional needs are seasonal or center around discrete events (for example, theater groups).
Affiliate membership was initially deeply discounted to prove the concept, but as the new year progresses, the Penobscot Bay Pilot is gradually inching up to its published rate card. Full rates, however, aren’t projected to apply until May, giving advertisers an incentive to come aboard during the remainder of the slow, dark winter and early spring.
According to Bunting, industry statistics show that 82% of readers find somewhere else to go if they hit a pay wall, and the Pilot‘s readership statistics suggest that it is satisfying a need for free local news. The site gets about 60,000 absolute unique visitors and 300,000 page views per month, and both figures have been increasing by 10-15% monthly.
Mahoney cites the organization’s “Truth in Advertising” promise regarding traffic numbers: “The counts on our Affiliate posts reflect actual human readers and not the additional traffic generated by automated bots, spiders, and other web crawlers,” she says, noting that robots still crawl the site and gather content to share across the internet, providing search engine marketing benefits. “We strive to be completely transparent with our business partners, our Affiliates, about the business of advertising online, and with the community that turns to us as a resource,” she says.
And the Pilot plans to continue innovating and growing. The organization is teaming up with the Hutchinson Center, the Belfast Area Chamber, and Our Town Belfast to revive the popular Best of the Best of Waldo County, adding online voting and a larger business expo element to what was previously a VillageSoup-sponsored program. The Pilot will also partner with local public safety organizations to help promote the first Run For Your Life Emergency Services Challenge in May, and will soon be compatible with mobile devices, making it more convenient for shoppers looking for information on local businesses.