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Oct 16, 2008

Topix quietly builds momentum in small towns

Topix quietly builds momentum in small towns

The lament of newspapers has become familiar by now: With readers moving online, the once community-binding dailies are falling apart, losing both the readers and their advertisers. That’s especially true for small town papers. (Ed: false statement) But a growing site called Topix is picking up the slack, self-reportedly having reached over one hundred million pageviews a month.

Topix has come a long way since its inception. Originally conceived as a news aggregator consolidating thousands of sources for local audiences, it shifted its focus several years ago to include the users, allowing citizen journalism, commenting, forum discussions and polls. That’s when it began to grow in earnest, as people in small communities began to find their local news portals on Topix and participate.

When I first talked to CEO Chris Tolles earlier this year, several newer startups like Outside.in were getting heavy press. Tolles noted the difference between Outside.in’s slick interface and the more dated look of Topix without concern, suggesting that his company gets little attention in Silicon Valley because it serves a middle American audience with different tastes. “How do we get people to do one thing in mass numbers?” he asked, pointing out the simplicity of the commenting system to answer the question.

At that time, about six months back, Topix was getting a staggering 120,000 comments per day on its forums and articles, but the growth has continued; most recently, it was receiving an additional 30,000 daily comments...

Topix may have an early mover advantage on a large segment of the population, but it is also challenged to sell its userbase, who are distributed countrywide in towns of 5,000 to 50,000 people. Tolles points out that Manhattan advertisers feel little confidence in placing ads for a user group they don’t understand, especially as the results of a campaign may not be clear. “The future of advertising online is an understanding that the effects are somewhat unmeasurable,” Tolles opines, although conceding that advertisers have yet to come to terms with that idea.

It might also be hard to prove to anyone but close partners that Topix is really experiencing high growth. The company told me their internal Google Analytics numbers showed 115 million pageviews in September, split among 15 million unique visitors — nearly a four-fold increase since the 3.9 million uniques it logged in September 2006. But while one measurement firm, ComScore, says that Topix is the third largest newspaper site online, another, Compete, shows it on a plateau of around 5 million uniques.

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