April 23, 2007

What's Missing from Your Local News?

by tolles at 11:38 AM

When we were trying to figure out what we needed to do to make Topix better, we went out and talked to a lot of people. I was personally surprised at how much people cared about the news about where they lived -- and what I learned when I listened to what they had to say. Those reactions and insights from the community went a long way into powering our re-invention. What all these people said when we asked them about the news and what mattered to them was so interesting, that I wanted more. I wanted to figure out a way to get in the heads of more people than I could talk to myself.

So, we noodled over a couple of different ways to do this, and some of the folks here took the initiative to test different approaches at SXSW – and out of all the things we tried, the best answers and most insight were consistently evoked by a simple question “What’s Missing From Your Local News?” We’ve posed that question to the community here at Topix, gone out with street teams and asked people at Web 2.0, and we’d love to get your take on it as well.

We also commissioned a mini-documentary that we hope will spark even more discussion around this question “What’s Missing From Your Local News” – and the results are pretty cool:

We went to the folks at PodTech, and had a lot of help from their entire crew, led by Valerie Cunningham, to help us figure this out. We asked them to find people that would have something interesting to say, and then let them say it. We didn’t tell them to come back with a particular answer, nor did we exercise any editorial control over the result. We did want them to be open about our involvement, but we didn’t script the answers, and the Podtech crew put together and shipped it on the net ahead of showing this to us.

We’re in discussions with Podtech about putting out each of the component pieces separately, and we’d love to figure out ways to make this something that the community can use beyond what we’re doing with it here at Topix.

We’re proud that we could help spark some discussion here, and thank everyone who helped put this together. We would love your take on this question, and will keep asking you until you come and tell us. Beyond what we’re doing at Topix to address this issue, we think that local news, the way it’s reported, discussed and distributed is important and involves all of us.

Hope you like it – and if you don’t, tell us what you think.

April 11, 2007

500 Editors and Counting

by amy at 4:56 PM

When we launched last week, we were curious about how our new site would perform. What kinds of folks would sign up to be editors? Would they be clustered on the coasts? Why would they want to participate?

What we’ve found in the first week is that people really do want to have a say in their local news. As of today, 500 people have signed up to edit more than 550 topics. And they’re from all over the country: from Washington State to Washington DC.

Their reasons for participating are also varied. Like the editors in North Bend, WA and Riverton WY, many are news junkies. Some other patterns also emerged:

Journalists and bloggers

The editor of the Newark, OH page has a master’s degree in journalism. The Washington, DC page is being groomed by a local blogger, photographer, and former college newspaper editor. A self-proclaimed “recovering journalist” is editing the Prescott Valley AZ page, while a former newspaper columnist and retired English teacher has taken the reins of the Newburgh, NY news. Houston, TX has three editors, one of whom is a graduating senior in broadcast journalism with a passion for working with online multimedia.

People who love where they live

The editor of the Interlochen, MI page is not only a blogger, but also a big fan of his small town. Los Angeles is in good hands, with an editor who has lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and claims, “Friends often call me when they are lost, and I am cooler than a bot.” Many editors were born and raised in their town, such as the Republic, WA editor, who cares “about the community being current on information and news in their neighborhood.” The editor of the St. Peters, MO page is interested in both local and statewide news, and thinks editing, “will be both an exciting challenge, and an opportunity to see first hand the news affecting my neighborhood.”

Small towns with no newspaper

Lucky for Schertz, TX, a town of just 35,000 people, with “no real media to speak of,” we have the town’s communication officer editing their news. Caledonia, WI, which also has no newspaper, now has a voice and place to share news quickly. And Pleasant Hill, CA – a community in the San Francisco Bay Area – now has its own editor to keep “my fellow citizens informed about important and interesting local news.”

And folks who just want to help

Berkeley Heights, NJ has no less than the head of the reference department for the local public library keeping its citizens up-to-date on “living in this township, Union County and the State of New Jersey.” The Redmond, WA editor says, “It's important to me to stay informed about what is going on in my community.” And the editor of the Germany page commented, “Looks like the Germany page needs help. There are some articles on it which are IMHO at the wrong place.” We think so, too.

To all the editors who have signed up, thank you.

April 1, 2007

Reinventing Topix: Topix.Com(munity)

by skrenta at 9:08 PM

Today Topix is launching a new platform for citizen journalism on the web. We started in 2004 by automatically aggregating the news and localizing it by ZIP code. But based on the rapid growth we've seen in the past year in our local forums (1M users!), we're now inviting members from our hyperlocal communities to take over the controls and help us edit the news.

Also note that as of today we're Topix.COM.

Finally! :-)

More details below.

From launch to 10M uniques...

The Topix we launched in 2004 crawled mainstream news content from the web, and used AI to localize articles by ZIP code. In 2005 we added blogs to our crawl; we now have 25k MSM sources and 25k editorially-chosen blog sources.

You’d have thought this would be enough news. But we soon found that even with 50k sources in our crawl, we still didn't have enough news to cover the local US every day. Even in my own town here in the sfbay, it turned out that a lot of news simply wasn't posted online anywhere. Maybe if we put up some forums people would type in more news.

So, in 2006 we added local forums for every town. Beyond wanting to fill a gap we saw, we wanted to let readers "talk back to the news". Consequently, 2006 was a hugely successful year for our site. We went from zero to 1 million users posting in our forums, and now have over 1,000 active local forums (5 posts/day or more). The traffic is growing 10-20% per month -- and now accounts for nearly half of our total traffic.

When you launch 30k+ forums, you have two problems. The first is how to get people to show up and start posting in the first place. Booting up community is notoriously difficult. The second problem occurs once the people show up. You have to stay on top of moderation or growing communities will always spin out of control.

Fortunately we had amassed quite a bit of traffic in our first two years, so we had daily audience on thousands of ZIP codes. We saw other local news startups trying to boot up community without having any traffic to prime the pump and knew they would fail. We also employed tricks in our social architecture, including using news stories as bait to kick things off, and doing geoblurred nearby thread imports to seed material so users wouldn't see "ghost town" forums.

From our days at Netscape we were also well aware with the spectrum of horrors that an active community can bring. From the start we invested in building powerful moderation software. We also hired full time moderators to police the community. Our approach wasn't to deal with each and every post directly, but to give them power tools to eliminate the bottom 5% of the bad stuff daily. They also stay on top of the inevitable escalations and phone calls. You can't approach community naively. You have to to keep your shared public space inviting to new visitors, or you stop growing.

As of today we have 37,000 daily posts in our forums, over 6.3M total posts, and have doubled traffic from last year to over 10M unique visitors per month. There is some amazing material in there, but while we can reliably get rid of the bottom 5%, we realized that what we also needed was a way to promote the top 1-5%. Most people don't want to read the full firehose of content, but the best-of posts we were seeing were so truly astonishing that we wanted to find a way to pull these out and feature them.

Topix's community news platform - help us edit the news

Today we're inviting members from local communities to sign up and help edit the news. Our system is structured in many ways similar to Wikipedia, or our previous project, the Open Directory (dmoz.org). Topix editors have the ability to post news locally, either from the news stream we are aggregating, from our local forums, or new items of their own. We also have tiers of editors which will have the ability to help moderate our growing forums, and help the broader editor base work within our editorial guidelines.

Best of all, anyone can submit a story to the Topix editors. We even have a feature that supports remote submissions: If you have news about your town, or a cameraphone photo of something that you think your town should see, all you need to do is send it to the editors by emailing the story to zipcode@topix.com.

If a locality doesn't have any editors yet, our roboblogger will handle posting of the news until humans take over. The roboblogger is shy though, so he will fade into the background if a locality is being actively maintained by its editors. If they go on vacation or otherwise don't post for a while, however, he will step back in. The roboblogger is basically an anthropomorphized version of the software we've been using to edit the site since 2004.

Fortunately, thanks to our relationships with Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy (the top three newspaper co's in the US), we already have over 100 journalists and editors from newspapers signed up in our system. They will edit and moderate alongside members of the public. Consider this an open invitation to the rest -- if you're a news professional, please sign up and help us edit the news for your city.

There are hundreds of details I won't go into in this post, and many that frankly we haven't fully worked out yet. I'm sure the editors we sign up will play a large role in shaping the system as it develops. We're tremendously excited about the potential of this platform to become a major force in local news. Sign up and add a voice to your town!

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