Outsourcing newspaper interaction – on Topix

Topix has just struck a deal to run the forums of MediaNews Group in the US, which owns 61 newspapers including the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News.

If Topix’s claim is genuine (and I have no reason to doubt it) that it gets over 80,000 comments a day – three million people posting more than 18 million comments since it launched its forums little under two years ago – then there seems to be obvious and compelling reasons for the union.

Marry what Topix does best with the local audience/trust that MediaNews papers have and you’re on to a winner surely?

Topix boasts again: IndyStar.com and Sun-Sentinel.com have each surpassed one million forum posts since Topix started running them.

In interview yesterday with Journalism.co.uk Yoosk consulting editor Nick Ryan said that traditional media was failing to shift from the old top-down approach online because it’s not getting involved nearly enough in user-interaction.

So all good with this move? Not all, according to Howard Owens:

“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 neighbours 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 newspaper.com.”

Owens adds that local should be a vertical, in the way fashion and travel are, and that the local paper should ‘own’ that space, dominating it across all platforms in a way other major brands dominate verticals, rather than letting another company get the best out of the paper’s good relationship with its audience.

10 thoughts on “Outsourcing newspaper interaction – on Topix

  1. Chris Tolles

    Hey — nice write up.

    One thing Howard hasn’t considered is how little most newspapers have wanted to enable conversations across their sites — that’s not a problem of the platform, it’s a problem of culture.

    Our business model is to create synergy with our partners – they get more people coming back to their sites, because they can engage with other people in the community better on their site.

    So far our partners are pretty happy. There are certainly more things a newspaper could do to engage with their communities – but having thousands of people already engaged is, in our opinion, a better place to start, rather than with some substandard platform which doesn’t scale up.

    Howard ignores the advantages we bring to the table for the local newspapers – the scalability, the auto-moderation and tools to enable mass scale.

    It’s easy to throw rocks at MediaNews and Topix, harder to build a product that gets engagement from lots of people.

  2. Howard Owens

    From my perspective, I’ve ignored nothing.

    From a technology perspective, Topix offers no advantage that I can see that a newspaper couldn’t do for itself.

    A good installation of Drupal could handle it, for example.

    MNG certainly has the resources to go far beyond what Topix is offering, if they would make it a priority (which for the sake of the viability of their business, they should).

    And the underlying thesis of my position is that newspapers MUST do this for themselves. The cultures MUST change. Regular readers of my blog will know I’m constantly harping on the need for newsroom cultures to change.

    That, in fact, may be another reason Topix is a bad move — by outsourcing it, it becomes a crutch and further impedes the strategic imperative for newsroom cultures to evolve into webcentric thinking.

  3. Chris Tolles


    Typical. Newspaper guy who has never built a top web product thinks its easy, and that a non technology company could just whip out a web scale product in ten minutes “A good installation of Drupal could handle it”.


    Building something that brings architectural advantage to the table is the key here — it’s not the surface functionality that’s hard.

    – Scaling to 80k comments a day is not something other commentary systems can handle off the shelf. They melt.

    – Auto-moderation of thousands of comments per publication where the Topix AI categorization does the heat language detection and can drop real problem posts, yet keep a little spice in them is not something anyone else has to offer

    – Technological understanding of the problem. Being able to enter a comment in 30 seconds means a lot vs. 2 minutes. If you “Drupal” implementation starts to slide when you have 50k comments in a thread, you lose the opportunity to keep the conversation going.

    Howard is confusing the technology platform with the business and cultural requirements here.

    Now — I agree that newsroom culture needs to change, and integrating community into the newsroom is KEY — but that can be done with Topix (or anyone else) providing the technology. The newsroom needs to have the tools to integrate the community into the story – and that is what we’re looking to do next.

    The only barrier to that happening with the Topix implementation is cultural. We WANT to get the newsroom involved, and leveraging their communities more effectively.

    There are certainly things that a newspaper is required to do here — like connect the journalists and the business to the community. But to write all their own code is analogous to having them manufacture printing presses and ink formulations.

    The proof’s in the pudding — This has been a helpful discussion is pointing out an opportunity – and we’ll be doing additional outreach to the MNG newsrooms to better integrate with the communities we’re working with on their behalf.

    Howard’s going to love it. 🙂

  4. Howard Owens

    Ok, after a drive home, my more sensitive self is over having my professional credentials insulted and I can dive in more substantially.

    Though it is very tempting to make a snide remark about the CEO of Topix leaving a trollish personal attack … I really shouldn’t go there.

    Besides, I’ve been pretty brutal in my position about Topix, which I realize is your baby and I’m sure you feel personally insulted, though I think my position has been completely about Topix and not you personally. I understand.

    Let’s talk about scale. As I intimated, I do know a little bit about scale, to say the least.

    Scale is absolutely necessary if you’re building a national participation network. Scale is absolutely essential, then, to Topix. But is it really essential to the Santa Cruz Sentinel? Will SCS ever get 50K on a comment thread? Or even 5K. Five hundred, maybe, two or three times a year. Any out of the box commenting package can handle that.

    Let’s talk about the Denver Post, another MGN paper. And a site with a robust participation community. I can’t for the life of me see what Topix is going to give to them that they absolutely really need that they are not already doing for themselves. They have scaled just fine for their needs, with, no doubt, plenty of room to grow.

    And in all of this, Chris, you’ve never addressed the issues I’ve raised about your stated frontal assault on the local news business — that you want to be #1, the current local news provider’s viability be damned, or the fact that you are trying to build a free classified model on the backs of local news content that you take for free and then also run banners against, while the all the while sending back little or no traffic to the originating news source.

    These are substantial and troubling issues, Chris, that as far as I can tell you haven’t publicly addressed.

    Nor have you addressed the idea that what you’re really doing in deals like the MNG deal is insinuating yourself in the relationship between newspaper operation and the community, rather than letting the newspaper operation be at the center of that relationship.

    If you have such a great community building product, why not white label it and completely step out of the picture publicly? If you really care about helping the newspaper industry build a viable business for the 21st Century?

  5. James

    I would rather see Media News Group go with a better comment system, like one of the new comment companies that just came out. You could connect blogs with newspapers>>traditional and new media. Topix isn’t really anything different than the old comment system and I am less than impressed with the actual functions on their site. All joking aside, scaling is not a feature. The end user can’t use scaling…it makes no difference to them.

    I do think a newspaper can benefit from an outside vendor in a situation such as this, but Topix offers nothing more than the same functionality backed by a forum (which is unimpressive, mustve spent all the money on scaling). This is nothing revolutionary, but they have a lot of money and gusto behind them so they go places. This is a case where a lackluster product with an incremental benefit pushed by industry leaders gets traction. Woohoo. There is so much better available.

  6. Chris Tolles

    James —

    > You could connect blogs with
    > newspapers>>traditional and new media

    It seems to me that “connecting” newspapers is going to take outreach to the newsroom, which is on the agenda for us.

    But, since you’re of the opinion that we’re lackluster in features, I’d at least be open to hearing from you on what you think should be done here.

    We *are* pretty conservative when it comes to features — product managers within newspaper companies want to see all the glories of facebook deployed on their sites, only to find that nobody actually uses all that stuff on their sites. Hence the bare bones, highly utilized core of what we do.

    On the other hand, we’re open to ideas, so if you’re still reading this — what do you want to see?

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