Topix Builds "Citizen Journalist" Functionality...But Not Necessarily Community
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Topix Builds "Citizen Journalist" Functionality...But Not Necessarily Community

Any fool can start a blog. And any news site can invite “citizen journalists” to participate, as Topix announced today:, the Palo Alto Web site that features news stories from around the world, is expanding into the citizen journalism business, offering readers a chance to publish their own stories.

The move is a part of a broader overhaul that includes the addition of public forums and the ability to comment on stories.

“The nature of news is changing as interactivity comes into play,” said Chris Tolles, Topix’s vice president of marketing. “The number of people blogging and wanting to participate seems to be an opportunity.”

But just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come (witness the AOL/Time Warner brouhaha). The handful of media companies who “get” consumer-created media — and, needless to say, the more savvy bloggers/”citizen journalists” on the vanguard of creating their own new media — understand that the top-down, one-sided model of professional content creation can’t (d)evolve into a cacophony of random voices or an aimless forum. It’s about creating “community” (quaint 19th-century century notions are suddenly back in vogue) and “relationships” — the buzzword that Jeff Jarvis uses in thought piece on the “Last Presses.”

Thus critics of Topix’s strategy observe:

Despite its scale, Topix could face challenges trying to build communities on its news pages, observers said. For a lot of people, Topix is not the local news brand — that distinction goes to local TV stations or newspapers.

“It’s an interesting idea,” said media consultant Vin Crosbie. “It’s a nice addition to what they’re providing, but I don’t see it as a threat to local newspapers or TV stations. The problem they have is they don’t have a local brand name and identity.”

Ah, brands.

Who already has deep relationships with their audience, which can be leveraged in developing consumer-created content communities? Could it be the good old-fashioned original content media, with their blue chip content brands? When it comes to aggregating news by category, like on Topix, news is a commodity, but so is the aggregation delivery channel — and it’s hard to build community around commodity. On the other hand, establish local brands, e.g. the “local newspapers or TV stations,” already have deep relationships with the communities in which they reside. It’s natural for citizen-created community news to cohere around these brands.

As traditional publishers watch in horror while their distribution channels are commoditized by aggregators like Topix (and Google), they should find solace in their remaining assets — their original content, their content brands and, most important, their audiences’ deep relationship with those brands. Publishers willing to embrace (radical) change might find a golden opportunity to create online communities built around active audience participation in content creation…and around good old-fashioned professional content.

(Of course, there’s still that nagging problem of barbarians at the gates — witness the LA Times wiki , but then good old days weren’t always as good as they seemed — witness the New York Times).