Newspapers should not outsource its community relationships

Local news is a vertical.

To succeed going forward, local newspapers need to treat local news as a vertical product.

Newspapers, traditionally, are horizontal, serving many interests and needs with a single product.

Web sites need to be more singularly focused.

Look at the way now owns the fashion vertical, or how American Idol has create a vertical for own product that now covers multiplatforms (TV, the Web, CDs, books, concert tours, mobile phones, etc.).

Local newspapers should aim for the same ownership of local news and information across multiplatforms, and especially dive deep on the Web — breaking news, video, community participation, databases, classifieds, IYP, and every thing else a publisher, editor or content producer can think of to ensure complete ownership of local. That’s what hyperlocal really means.

The last thing you should do is outsource community participation. You need to own your relationships with your best customers — your readers and your contributors, the people in the local community that make it what it is — a community. Letting another company own that relationship is a strategic mistake of monumental proportions.

That’s why Media News signing a deal to turn over commenting functions to Topix is just dumb beyond belief.

Ironically, Media News owns the Denver Post, which of late has been doing a fantastic job of trying to become the hub of community conversation, both through its main news site and its innovative Neighbors site. Those efforts are completely incompatible, as I see it, with the Topix business model, which Chris Tolles is quite blunt about: “We’re aiming to be the number one local news site on the web …”

There can be only one number one, and if it’s Topix, it ain’t your

I’ve written about Topix before. Topix is not your friend. If your serves small, defined geographic communities, and you are not actively prohibiting Topix from crawling your content, you are giving away your crown jewels for pretty much nothing in return. The last thing you want to do is turn over your commenting system to a vendor with an express intent of beating you in your own market.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection, my strong use of the word “own” could be misconstrued. I don’t mean “own” in the command-and-control sense of traditional business models, but rather being in such a strong position that you’re a the center of the community conversation. That’s more than a business model, to me; that’s a core mission of a healthy local journalistic enterprise.

And a point I forgot to make is that comments are just one spoke in the wheel of creating online community – – if done right, they lead to things like profiles and social networking and stronger bonds with the community and more contributions from community members. That’s why comments are so vital to a web site’s success and shouldn’t be outsourced.

And as the first commenter on this post has already pointed out — partnerships are great and necessary and should be pursued, but only where they make sense, and partnering core functionality to Topix makes no sense.

UPDATE: Editor’s Weblog linked to this post, which is where Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, chose to respond. And I responded back. And he responded. And I responded. And there may be more. Of course, I can’t share our much more entertaining behind the scenes private e-mail exchange.

5 thoughts on “Newspapers should not outsource its community relationships

  1. Interesting post, Howard. I manage a TV station web site (just started the job) and have colleagues who insist that sending our story URLs to Topix is a good thing. Your post makes me put on my thinking cap — which I’ll do while watching the second half of Packers-Cowboys. Keep up the great work.

  2. I totally concur with you, Howard! The Hartford Courant runs their forums through Topix, and as a result, do not have the control that they could or should have if the forums were run through their site.

    I can’t possibly image how “sweet” the deal might have been that would cause a newspaper to want someone else to host and manage its communities. It’s another step *away* from the people as well as a giving away of content.

    And, another point that you are so right on: that message board content can create communities via social networking (which could come later)! More papers should plow their money into good moderators who will maintain a civil forum and know how to create community. I can only imagine that Topix automated features were a selling point–but, automation can build community.

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