It’s all fine and good if you’re a newspaper and you’re putting your news on a web site. Almost all newspapers do it now.
But if you want to build an online news business, there are a few extra things you must do.
One of them is to create a place where people in your community can communicate — comment, participate, suggest stories and submit stories.
That’s something a lot of larger newspapers are doing now, but many small papers have neglected.
Into that void has stepped Topix.
As Mark Glasser highlights, the long-struggling Topix is finding its audience in rural areas where online forums are few and local newspapers have neglected to create a platform for participation.
How did you get so many rural people involved with your site? Many of these areas are not as connected to the Net.
Skrenta: Itâ€™s been a big surprise for us. Weâ€™ve looked at it, and one factor is that in major markets there are a lot of places for you to communicate. If youâ€™re in San Francisco, youâ€™re pretty wired, you can go to Craigslist and you have a hundred places to go online and communicate. There are 1,500 newspapers but we identified 35,000 places in the country where people actually live. Already most places donâ€™t even have a newspaper, and if you get out of the top 100 newspapers, most of them donâ€™t have a very sophisticated online presence at all. They donâ€™t have sophisticated forums.
We found that in most places in this country, we are the only high-end news site. What happens is this odd pattern where a news event happens, and they find our site online and they like it and stick. One of the more dramatic cases was when two tornadoes struck Caruthersville, Mo. Up to that point, we had a little activity there but it was pretty low. That day we had 600 posts about the tornadoes , and it was astonishing, there were first-hand accounts and people were asking if so-and-so was OK. People in the town were responding and saying, â€˜yes, theyâ€™re OK.â€™ A few months later, a lot of the people had stayed in the forums.
You can see the same explosion of participation in Greensburg, KS, where GHS owns a newspaper, and where we made a special effort to update the web site after a tornado destroyed that town, but we still didn’t have available all of the participation tools we would like.
Publishers get quite worked up about Google and Yahoo “stealing” their news, but for the most part, and especially in the case of Google, those sites are just redirecting traffic to publishers’ sites. In the case of Topix, Topix is taking publishers headlines and photos and giving very little in return (check your referrer logs). Topix is truly building a business on the back of newspaper publishers, and the site is owned by a trio of newspaper companies.
Skrenta: Prior to the forum launch, the major problem with the site was we werenâ€™t getting user involvement. We had a decent number of unique users, but a very low number of page views per visit, and they wouldnâ€™t visit very often. They would visit a couple times a month and didnâ€™t get passionately involved in our site or our brand. When we launched the forums, that immediately took off in a pretty substantial way. When we got people to get off of just consuming our old read-only site to posting in a forum or reading a forum, they were much more involved. The page views went up 10 times, from two page views a visit to 20 page views on average. And you know why: It sucks you in a lot more.
Topix didn’t just stumble into this model. It’s well thought out. The company is engaging volunteer editors (about 1,000 so far) and employing some well thought out software to help moderate the forums.
Skrenta: Well, 95% of our moderation is done by software. Thereâ€™s a lot of tricks in it. For instance, if you are banned from the forums, you can actually still post, and see your own posts, but other people donâ€™t see them. Thatâ€™s a neat social trick, because if you know youâ€™ve been banned, most people will work around that. Theyâ€™ll clear their cookies and work to figure out how to get around the block; but if they donâ€™t know theyâ€™ve been banned, and they seem to be able to post, it wonâ€™t do any harm to the environment. We can do 95% of the moderation through software, but we also have three full-time staff to do moderation as community editors that respond to user-generated flags.
If you’re a newspaper publisher who isn’t part of Gannett, McClathcy or Tribune, you should be concerned about Topix.
The good news is, Topix proves that if you build the platform, you can transform your web sites into community participation hubs.