When I first reported on the changes taking place at Topix Sunday, I didn’t grasp just how significant the changes would be. Now that I’ve had a chance to actually explore the new web site and digest Rich Skrenta’s explanation, I can see that this is really huge.
At first, I had thought they were changing their emphasis and some of the methodology. But now I see that it is a radical overhaul. When you first login to the new site, it looks entirely different. It really has become a completely local site. You can still get national news and such, but it is a lot harder to find those links than it was before. Clearly, this is a full-blown effort at achieving localized communities for news.
No longer can it be said that Topix provides a Google News-esque offering. For instance, there’s no longer a news search option as far as I can tell, just the ability to look up pre-defined topics.
I’m not sure I completely understand some of what they’re doing, however. For instance, they have forums that don’t seem to be related to news or geography at all — like the Bon Jovi forum. So while Rich emphasizes geography in his post and the Topix home page now asks for a zip code above all else, they seem to be interested in creating community beyond geography.
The notion of creating localized communities certainly seems to have merit, but I imagine it will take time to prove this concept out. It also seems to me that more beyond news is needed to create a truly sticky local community online. Events, for instance, would seem to be to be a valuable pairing, just as it is with local newspapers.
I’m sure Rich and the rest of the team at Topix has already thought this through, but if they were able to come up with a community portal that combined news, weather, events, entertainment, movie listings, TV listings, etc. based on zip code, it might be a really powerful place. But starting with news probably makes the most sense because it is the least geographically organized to date and you need to have a unique selling proposition to build that initial community from which all other things may spring.
It also strikes me that the biggest challenge will be in creating that sense of community outside of technology centers. So many of these online services are strong where early adopters and high-tech communities thrive, but find it difficult to penetrate grassroots America. It seems to me that to be the powerful local ad engine that I think the newspapers envisioned it as when they invested in the company a few years ago, it will need to go beyond the high-tech hives.
Topix will definitely be a company to keep an eye on to see how this radical shift shakes out.
UPDATE: Rich comments that search still exists, it is just hard to find. He also points to a heat map that seems to show pretty broad activity, not just in high-tech hotbeds. I based my judgment based on “random” zip code lookups, but obviously the map has more credibility than my testing.