Outsourcing community to Topix is not a good idea

It looks like I’m not the only one concerned about newspapers outsourcing core-responsibility community building to Topix.

Rich Gordon shares his concern:

Still, I would argue that for news organizations, building online community should be more than an outsourced service. I’d go so far as to say that cultivating community is the most important step for news media to take in order to build online engagement. By partnering with Topix, news organizations are essentially making a statement that online discussions are not important enough to build technology and staffing capabilities around.

While Topix is owned by three newspaper companies, I’m not aware of any Gannett, Tribune (see second update below — there’s at least one each for Gannett and Tribune) or McClatchy newspapers (or any companywide deals) outsourcing its community building to Topix. That’s telling. And my prediction, none of them will any time soon.

If you look at Topix leadership, you see these are not newspaper people, but Silicon Valley pros. This is just another bubble play for them. Their strategy isn’t aimed at helping newspapers, but how to harvest audience and revenue from newspapers.

UPDATE: 2007 NAA Online Innovator winner Steve Yelvington weighs in:

I’m in Howard’s camp on this one. This is not the same as outsourcing obituary guestbooks to Legacy.com (which I think actually makes sense). This is core.

This is a great opportunity to listen to the community that’s being thrown away. You can’t grow to understand what people care about, what’s on their minds, behaving like an absentee landlord.

We don’t listen enough. Voicemail systems and security guards separate our newsrooms from the real world. Beat reporters talk to beat sources, who have an agenda, and rarely to civilians. Normal life rarely shows up in the news report.

The Internet gives us a powerful opportunity to reconnect with communities of real people. Handing that opportunity to Topix, regardless of how well Topix might perform, squanders a treasure.

Yelvington points out that online news pioneer Steve Outing takes a more nuanced approach to the topic, but Outing does say:

If any news companies are looking at the Topix offering and thinking, “Great. We can outsource our audience interaction and get back to the news business as usual,” well, that’s nuts. User comments are just one small element of interacting and engaging with your audience.

But the problem is, for any news organization that doesn’t have the fortitude to handle community conversation itself, that is exactly what is going to happen, especially if it’s a companywide mandate, such as Media News is doing. It’s inevitable.

I realize my rhetoric has been a little heated on this topic, but it’s a major issue of survivability for newspapers on the web.

UPDATE II: Here’s a post about Topix planning to partner with local newspapers on hyperlocal news pages. Of interest, contrary to what I write above, it notes a Gannett and a Tribune paper that are using Topix to manage forums.

3 thoughts on “Outsourcing community to Topix is not a good idea

  1. Howard: Part of my thinking in taking a middle ground stance on this is this: User comment management can take up significant staff time, and in the case of newspapers where pressures are already great, that might mean that user comments is about the only “social” thing that gets done. By *intelligently* outsourcing part of user comment management, there can be resources left to do the other social stuff that folks like you and me are constantly urging news companies to do.

    But I agree: the danger is as you say, that publishers will continue to ignore direct interaction with and participation from their audience, thinking that user comments is enough. That’s a cultural flaw that needs to be fixed.

  2. I see you point, Steve, but I think the modern publisher needs to face reality and make sure community conversation is both properly staffed and that all staff is properly trained. Outsourcing this is like outsourcing everything that currently appears in the local news columns.

  3. I think you nail the central issue, Howard. The conversation is central to what we’re doing. After some initial resistance, the consensus view in my newsroom is that comments have added a lot of value. As part of a full suite of reader content tools — blogs, galleries, forums, whatever’s next — comments are a critical ingredient that keeps us close to our community. Putting that at arm’s length puts a newsroom at a disavantage.

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