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Topix Evolves: A Discussion with CEO Chris Tolles

News aggregation is being approached in every which way,. driven by the long tail possibilities of search engine optimization, and less and less local output from newspapers,  TV and radio. The content creator sites, hyper local sites, blog aggregators and portals have also been aggressively pursuing aggregation of local content (including Fwix, which we profiled last week).

But where is Topix? The pioneering local news aggregator graced the pages of Wired  soon after its launch in 2002. Indeed, its potential was deemed so great that Gannett, Tribune and Knight Ridder paid $60 million for it in 2005, expecting it to play a key role in the future of local news.

Since then, however, Topix has kept a relatively low profile. Most of its founders have moved on, and the site no longer  represents the latest innovation in local search.

Yet, Topix lives on, and rather well, too. It aggregates content from 50,000 sources;  publishes 20,000 local pages; and its usage is greater than ever with nine million unique visitors, thanks to partnerships with such publishers as ESPN, AOL/MapQuest, Earthlink and others. Sixty percent of its traffic comes from destination and partner traffic,  while 40 percent comes from SEO. The site also receives 125,000 comments a day.

While CEO Chris Tolles won’t confirm that the site is making a small profit, he says the site earns enough to support a sales staff. There are also ad partnerships with AdSense, Yext, Trulia, SimplyHired and others.

To Tolles, a co-founder of the company who has been running it since 2007, the long-term challenge for Topix and other aggregator sites is to figure out what the ultimate product becomes.  Aggregating news will never be enough, he says. “And we have 10x the usage of any other aggregators. Local news is a great driver as a seed for online engagement but it plateaus.” Indeed, discussion – not news– is now driving the majority of the site’s traffic and engagement.

Angry Tea Party types and other passionate citizen  play a big role in such commentary. “People with a large stake in local issues – both big and small – are the ones driving the commentary,” says Tolles.  “It’s passion that drives things.”

Many of these people live in smaller communities outside of the media mainstream, adds Tolles. Roughly 45 percent of the site’s usage comes from such communities, which typically don’t have daily newspapers, making Topix the substitute local news provider.

Ultimately, “Success, for us, hinges upon getting people to the site via the Web and mobile – which now represents 10 percent of usage  “and a huge opportunity,” says Tolles.  A good portion of that audience needs to become participants in the forums, and then we can “make money off of that set of interactions.”

View full post on BIA/Kelsey Local Media Watch

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