After all, online forums have a bad reputation for unfettered discussion, gossip and slander, leading most news organizations to abandon them altogether online. And people on forums are usually more focused on the discussion than on clicking on ads. But for Topix, the forums have transformed the site from a simple search engine and news aggregator into a series of online water cooler discussions that riff off the news of the day.
And with the popularity of forums, Topix has a more engaged audience that stays on the site longer. Plus, Topix is bringing in even more money by serving up forums to newspaper partner sites and sharing ad revenues with them. Still, Topix has a long way to go in signing up editors to cover the 32,plus localities it tracks in the U. I later corresponded with both of them via email after Tolles was elevated to chief executive.
The following is an edited transcript of our discussion. What was your thinking in relaunching the site in April? The challenge of any social system, from Usenet to the Washington Post message boards to Yahoo News, these systems always succumb to their own success. Problem one with these communities is how do I boot it up and get it growing? It ruins the conversation, and the worst thing from our perspective is that the audience stops growing. You have to weed out the bad stuff and bad people every day.
We use moderators or algorithms, whatever tricks we can, to get bad people off so it remains a good place for people to come and discuss things. How do you do that? Was your traffic stagnating? When we launched the forums, that immediately took off in a pretty substantial way. When we got people to get off of just consuming our old read-only site to posting in a forum or reading a forum, they were much more involved.
The page views went up 10 times, from two page views a visit to 20 page views on average. And you know why: It sucks you in a lot more. If you go to the Texas forums, there are thousands of posts.
Among them is a first-hand account of a Texas Minuteman who patrols along the border, which is this wonderful story of an unusual experience. So how do you promote that up to the news page so that people can read the best 10 posts rather than everything? So what can these people do? Promote items in our forum. If the roboblogger gets something wrong, they can remove the story from the page.
They can post an original story, or a news tip on the page. How do you oversee the overseers? Chris Tolles Chris Tolles: For the moment, we have a pretty simple system with software taking care of it, with a core of folks and a manager who oversee the entire site. Basically you build a hierarchical model and build up levels.
Once somebody does a good job for awhile you promote them up a level. At the top, you have people report to you. What you really want is an ecosystem, a virtuous circle. With the Open Directory, the people who maintained subsets of the site also wanted to get a bigger audience for them. Before it was just read it and comment on it, but now we hope to have sites that are programmed by the people who use it. Is there a lot of turnover in people editing for the site?
When you did the redesign in April did you also change your business model? Our business model is the same, but we did make a conscious effort to de-emphasize the ad footprint on the page. Before, when you visited us in in our offices in Palo Alto, we had a pretty ugly site with a big ad down the middle of the page, which did pretty well in clickthrough rates, but it detracted from the image of quality that we were trying to aspire to.
So we decided it would cost us money but it was worth it so we moved the ads to the right side of the page. We still are primarily an ad-supported site. We are not profitable at this point. We were profitable before the [newspaper buyout] deal. How do you become profitable?
Is it getting more traffic or more ads? Our mission is focused on audience growth and being wise about not over-monetizing the site, and serving big banner ads to drive people away. How is the deal with the newspaper groups going? How have you integrated with them? We have integrated with them in a few ways. One of the deals is that we were to put up a widget next to each story they do providing background for the topic.
We allow the editors to decide what can go up and what should be taken down, we allow site-specific four-letter word lists.
They have different guidelines than we do; they are a bit more conservative than we are on our site. So do you run the forums or do they run them? They run them, but we serve code into the sites. Because the forum posts are federated through the same system, if you post something on a story by the Sun-Sentinel, it will show up on a Topix page as well. That seems to work very well. A lot of these newspaper companies are using Prospero [to run their online forums], which is a piece of junk.
Plus, the costs can be quite high with it. It could cost you 50 cents CPM in page views with that system. The Sun-Sentinel had , in the first six months we put it up.
Each comment generates more page views for each person going to read it. Do you get that in the forums or is it lower there? The CPM rate is about half on the forums as it is on a news page. The forum pages have an even more de-emphasized ad form factor.
We really try not to get in the way of people wanting to go back and forth with comments. Most people think forum pages are worthless. Targeted local forums turn out to be worth more. That was a big surprise for us. Yes, and you can get ads for local farmers or local real estate agents or restaurants and people will still click on them. Down the line, would you go out to non-partner newspapers to offer them forums?
Do you see yourselves becoming more of a vendor for these sites? How did you get so many rural people involved with your site? Many of these areas are not as connected to the Net. There are 1, newspapers but we identified 35, places in the country where people actually live. We found that in most places in this country, we are the only high-end news site. What happens is this odd pattern where a news event happens, and they find our site online and they like it and stick.
One of the more dramatic cases was when two tornadoes struck Caruthersville, Mo. Up to that point, we had a little activity there but it was pretty low. That day we had posts about the tornadoes , and it was astonishing, there were first-hand accounts and people were asking if so-and-so was OK.
Will it pass a test for being journalism or not? Well, a lot of important issues would pop up, like about the police chief or a sex scandal at the high school. Click graphic to see forum traffic Tolles: If you look at the curve of posts [click graphic on left], you had this initial burst of posts with the tornadoes, and then the daily chatter in the forums. But somewhere along the line, there was this unpopular police chief and government, and now the post volume is higher than it was during the spike around the tornadoes.
People in this little town know us. How did they originally find your site? We see this all the time. There might be a murder in Virginia, and the No. We have the biggest discussion about this murder, we have hundreds of posts about it. We try to get the web architecture right so it is discoverable by people interested in the topic.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo contributed research for this story. Photo of Rich Skrenta by Pinar Ozger. Photo of Chris Tolles by Niall Kennedy.