This evening Topix is doing something entirely logical and taking a big risk at the same time. The site, which has been a “top 25″ news destination, is now effectively flipping its model and going from being a news aggregator with comments and community at the margins to a community generated local news site with wire service feeds. It effectively creates a news blog for every zip in the United States. And Topix seeks human writers to help create and edit those local news pages.
The risky part is that strategy shift brings with it all the uncertainty and potentially uneven quality of so-called “citizen journalism.” The logical part is that this combines the site’s two great strengths and competitive differentiators (local news and community) and pushes them front and center.
With its “Read, Talk, Edit” modules on its new Topix homepage, the site almost looks more like “Web 2.0″ community than a news site at first glance. On second glance, Topix is inviting readers to become editors and either create original content themselves or identify local news/content URLs for posting.
In the absence of human editors in a given area, the site offers the “RoboBlogger,” a personality for the site’s news search algorithm.
In speaking to a couple of traditional journalists, I encountered some skepticism that the site would work given that it will rely primarily and so heavily on editors solicited from the community. But CEO Rich Skrenta and VP Chris Tolles were founders of the Open Directory Project/DMOZ, which eventually had several thousand volunteer human editors building the directory.
In sitting down with Skrenta and Tolles several weeks ago to discuss the changes, they told me that people really valued the local news aspect of the site, which has been a differentiator from the beginning. However, Skrenta and Tolles also said that there just wasn’t enough local news content online to really leverage more fully than they already were. So they decided to effectively create it themselves — or rather to allow community members to post it themselves.
There are lots of interesting community experiments going on at conventional newspapers, too many to discuss here. Perhaps the boldest and most visible is happening at Gannett’s USAToday flagship paper. (Gannett is a part owner of Topix, so are McClatchy and Tribune Co.) But given the momentum that Topix has built — it is now collecting thousands of comments daily — and the Open Directory experience of Skrenta & Co., the site has a great shot at creating a rich new model that more fully integrates professional journalism and user-generated content.
In making these changes (and buying the Topix.com domain), Topix is also seeking to create a brand and more defined “personality” for the site.
As I said, it’s both a big risk and a logical evolution for the site, especially given the backgrounds of the founders. There will be lots of people watching, especially among Topix’s traditional newspaper owners, to see whether and how well it works.