Topix Cites Progress, Intros ‘Personal News Bureaus’

After its founding in 2002, Topix was definitely an “A List” Silicon Valley company, leading the way for crawling news in a million interesting and valuable ways. Its founders were extremely dedicated and smart, and the company looked like it could be another Google.

To be sure, the company remains innovative, and has grown from eight to 30 employees. But since March 2005, when 75 percent of it was acquired by Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune (GMT), its ranking on the hype meter has fallen (note: GMT now owns 80 percent). Sometimes, it almost seems like just another newspaper tech vendor.

Meanwhile, the likes of Digg and Reddit have ascended. It is Digg’s Kevin Rose on the cover of Wired, not Topix Founder Rich Skrenta.

Is it fair? Has the newspaper equity done anything to squash the company? Is Topix fated to just rolling out fringe products in the hopes that one of them “sticks” and topples no-tech Craig’s List?

Business Development head Mike Markson, for one, thinks such a perception, if there is one, would be totally unfair. The reality of the high profile blog sites is they are “gathering small, niche audiences,” he says. Meanwhile, Topix – thanks in no small part to its newspaper associations, along with partners such as CBS, CitySearch, InfoSpace, Ask, Yahoo and Earthlink – has quietly picked up ten million unique visitors, and 5.5 million forum posts.

To make sure that its audience finds it, the company also quietly paid a cool $1 million in January to a Canadian company for the right to Topix.com. Previously, it was only on Topix.net. “Our audience is sizeable,” says Markson. “Only USA Today has more traffic” in news.

Markson says I am free to sniff at Topix’s rolling out “fringey,” Craig’s List-like classifieds for its assorted geo-and personal interest communities. But he points out that those ‘fringey” products reach an audience that the newspaper sites would never reach on their own. In the six months since its classifieds product was first released, for instance, it has gotten 120,000 listings that go to targeted audiences that would be otherwise hard to reach.

In addition, Topix is currently powering the general merchandise category – the heart and soul of Craig’s List, and roughly 15 percent of all classifieds — for all the Tribune sites. Maybe it will do the same for other companies as well.

Whether such activities lead to profits is hard to tell. The company doesn’t provide any guidance on the subject. But most of the revenue that the company does make is by targeting Google AdSense. It gets a healthy $4 to $6 CPMs for news breakouts, and $2 CPMS for forums.

Markson argues that the correct way to look at Topix is that it is a living organism that is shaped by all the disparate communities out there, both in small towns, and the neighborhoods of large cities. In fact, the company “crawls-it-all” for 32,500 communities. Of those, at least 1,000 have “real traction.”

“Where else can (users) go” to find the hyper-local content that Topix’s crawled sites provide, asks Markson. “Newspapers aren’t giving it to them. We own these towns.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that a Topix personalized community site is going up in the local ratings against CNN or a giant metro paper. But the sites are producing results.

Moreover, all the content that is crawled and served up is clean. Other sites like Digg, in which users vote in top stories, are “filled with spam. People are gaming the system,” he says.

Markson assures that Topix is going to continue innovating, and adding new services. The latest one, in fact, rolled out today. It is a personalized virtual news bureau that allows users to be kind of a news DJ, picking and choosing content, and even contributing some fresh content of their own. Editors that go on vacation or fall down on the job – and experience shows that many probably will – will have their sites refreshed by a “robo-blogger” that will do it for them.

The chances of this service sticking are pretty strong, says Markson, who notes that Wikipedia has 70,000 open editors, and this one is more fun. And while users can always create their own personal blog, the truth is that “people don’t know how to do it. Type Pad is difficult.” Topix also brings the audience with it. “They don’t want to have an empty room,” he says.