Topix's Tolles on the new news model

Bambi Francisco Roizen · June 9, 2008 · Short URL:

If there's anyone who has an interesting perspective on the new news model, it's Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix. According to Chris, 85% of Topix's content is commentary. Topix generates about 115,000 comments per day, which equates to about 20 pageviews per comment, according to Chris (who's video pitch for Topix is on display with this post).

On Tuesday morning, I'll be moderating a panel, at AlwaysOn's OnHollywood conference, focusing on the new news models across the Web. Chris will be on my panel as will Dan Farber, Editor in Chief at CNet, Alan Citron of TMZ and Pete Vlastelica of Yardbarker. It should be fun as Drew Curtis is going to warm up the crowd with a "Not news update." Earlier, I posted my email interview with Dan.

Here's my email interview with Chris. Note his comment on why being partisan is better than being objective.

BF: Name three major trends in the news business (besides the fact that the audience is fragmenting and more people are getting news online and from multiple sources).

Chris: Amateur content freaking out journalists, changing the nature of the business. Fragmenting audience doing away with monopoly profits (which disappear) leaving newsroom exposed. Fragmentation pointing to the death of objective journalism -- better to be partisan and opinionated to differentiate

BF: What do the changes at the Journal - starting to look a lot like USA Today and NYTimes combined - underscore about the changing news landscape?

Chris: Rupert's aiming to win as a mainstream news source. Commercial success is in fact the number one driver of business (even news).

BF: What news outlets do you admire? Who's doing it right and what are they doing?

Chris: Nick Denton's Gawker -- he's fearless, and driven by audience engagement and pageviews, the way he should be. Mike Arrington's Techcrunch -- Again, someone who is willing to to say anything for traffic.
SF Chrinicle -- best use of commentary for a non Topix powered site -- CW Nevius's going after the homeless lobby is brilliant.

BF: Who's making money in news today, and why?

Chris: Seems making money is tough with a fully staffed newsroom - although lots of folks making some sort of profit. Gawker seems to be doing ok, as is Fox news.

BF: How are you producing the content? To what extent do you count on bloggers, freelancers and/or wannabe pundits who enjoy opining and have a lot of free time on their hands?

Chris: We take "aggregate it" from bloggers and journos...but our main source of content these days is commentary -- 115k comments a day..85% of the pageviews.

BF: What payment models are you incorporating to incentivize contributors/writers/producers/editors?
Chris: None

BF: Who's breaking the news these days?

Chris: Everyone

BF: Who's distributing the news these days? CBS, Google or Twitter?

Chris: Again, it's everyone.  The more you know your business, the more it's your friends (I never read a story in mainstream news about our business that I haven't seen or heard about from friends)

BF: How are the changes in the news industry affecting your business negatively/positively and what are you doing about it?

Chris: Huge opportunity coming into focus based on the dissolution of the current regime.  The downside is that advertising is not a stablke business for us online folks either, and its pretty tough any way you look at it.

BF: Seems big media companies thought about getting into the ad-network game - Reuters, Wired - but they've dropped that initiative. Are creating ad networks of small bloggers a tough business?

Chris: Well, yeah.  Think of $3 eCPM.  Think of how many pageviews you need to create a $50M dollar business.

BF: What did Washington Post do wrong with its hyperlocal strategy?

Chris: It’s really hard to make one little area work. I would have tried to do something much more poorly in the entire DC Metro area, based much more around getting people to engage.  They have registration around commentary for example, which I would pull down.  I’d also get their journalists to get involved with the participation. At the end of the day, newspaper people don’t really like mixing it up with the hoi polloi.

BF: What would have it cost in the "old days" to produce the content you're producing?

Chris: Well, we aggregated news for free before.  The interesting issue here is that we have more hyper local content than any other source right now.  You can’t buy ZIP code level daily content for 20k cities and towns across the US for any price – we had to build this ourselves.  So, you can’t license this from the AP, or all of the newspapers or anywhere – you have to figure out a way to get it from the people who live there.  So, at the end of the day, you couldn’t buy this in the “old days”

BF: Are the commenters on your site bubbling up and gaining an audience?

Chris: Not as named entities, like bloggers might.  In aggregate, we’re getting quotes in news articles, and its clear that forums in a given community are getting a lot of notice … check out  -- the search on google for “topix forums” without our own site’s results – 276,000 hits

BF: How do you incentivize the commenters? Or, what's their incentive?

Chris: The commentariat is engaging and talking with each other.  The comments are the content left behind that activity.  The incentive is that you are getting to talk and interact with other people, share your opinion and basically get an audience for what you have to say, as well as it being fun and interesting for the people participating. Comments are different, therefore, than letters to the editor – they aren’t just “content” meant for the broad audience – they are participation.  While it’s valuable content from a local or topical standpoint, the people participating aren’t “working” for us, they’re getting their value out of the interaction.

BF: If "everyone" is breaking news, what kind of news does Topix stand for?

Chris: Topix is the home of local voice on the web.  We are the number one place to see what people care about in their communities or their communities of interest.  We do have breaking news in small towns or in areas where others can’t cover the news, but it’s the discussion and conversation around those events which differentiates Topix

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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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