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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