Topix getting more aggressive in going after local information franchise

I’ve told you before, Topix is not your friend.  They’ve been taking your headlines and links, even your photos, and using them to build a community of people interested in those local topics, your franchise. And all the while, trying to build a local classified network of FREE classifieds.

Now comes word that they’re going after your event listings, your business listings and your movie listings.

So why are you still letting them scrape your headlines and links?

It would be one thing if they were sending you traffic, but they’re not.

Topix wants to own your local information franchise.  How much help are you willing to give them?

Chris Tolles brings some stats to the anonymous vs. registration debate

Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, sent me a note and said:

I got sick of reading all the hand wringing by various newspapers around anonymous comments and had our development guys run some stats comparing anonymous comments vs. registered users’.

And that led to this blog post.

While anonymous posts have a roughly 50% higher kill rate, they also account for 3X the comment and commenter volume. If one asks, “where are we getting the most acceptable comments from?”, the answer is clearly the non-registered user base. As pointed out above, that there are as many registered users on Topix is partially due to offering anonymous comments

Also, its important to note that the ability to manage “anonymous” commenters and “registered” commenters is equivalent from a moderation standpoint. It’s just as easy to identify someone by their IP address for the most part as it is through a registration system. While a 50% difference is certainly something to look at, it’s not an order of magnitude, and we’re also looking at a grand total of way under 10% of total commentary.

Some quibbles:

I think there is a difference between “acceptable” and “accepted.” What the Topix numbers show is 3x as many “accepted” anonymous comments. That does not mean they were “acceptable,” if you define acceptable as A) adding to the civil discourse (as opposed to empty, ranting blather); B) providing useful information that advances the storyline of the article, which is the beauty of a really good user comment string.

Both A and B should be the goal of a adding comments to a story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a Wild-West approach to comments. The open conversation is better than no conversation. I would simply rather see interaction evolve to a higher level of utility. We catch glimpses of that sometimes in some anonymous comment strings now.

I have a great faith the the majority of a audience to be civil and intelligent, and that providing some tools, techniques and encouragement, we can draw more civic mindedness out of more people. Anonymity does encourage, I have no doubt, a certain level of glibness if not outright bad behavior.

I’m willing to accept some lesser level of participation in exchange for better conversations.

That said, I totally part company with those (referenced in Chris’s post, but original articles no longer available (now there are some newspapers using a bad CMS)) who say there should be no comments unless we enforce registration. At GHS, we’re building a registration-based system, but in the meantime, we’re using an anonymous system. I would rather have the conversation than not, even if that means we have to weed out some junk.

Chris is right on this point:

The “anonymous” issue is just a red herring. Really, what these journalists are threatened by is the nature of truly public discourse on the web. These people are not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up.

They’re your audience

I agree. You simply MUST enable the conversation on your web site (just don’t outsource it to Topix). And you must be a part of it. And you must learn to deal with it. That’s part of being a journalist these days. If it’s not already in your job description, it should be.

You simply must engage your audience. The benefits far outweigh the periodic bad actor post (one of the benefits of the Topix report is that it statistically demonstrates how little actual really bad stuff is part of the submission flow — journalists should be able to deal with this trickle as part of their duties).

One thing that would be interesting is if Topix ran an A/B test on registration vs. non-registration. Of course, it would only really be useful if we had some way of measuring the civic value of conversations, not just how many posts were banned. Also, I would like to see the test involve registration that sets some sort of expectation for real identity. Topix, at least, has the volume of participation to make such a test statistically valid if run over a long-enough period of time (and maybe in a couple of different periods). The A/B test would involve using the same content to spur conversation, but route half the people to an anonymous-allowed site, and half to a registration site.

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 (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.

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.