Q&A: Topix CEO Chris Tolles on adding user comments to 61 newspaper sites

News forum Topix seeks to power local conversation in every city in America. It announced Tuesday a deal to provide MediaNews Group with online discussion and article commenting capabilities for each of the publisher’s 61 daily newspapers.

OJR chatted with Topix CEO Chris Tolles about how the partnership works and what it means for the future of citizen journalism. Below is an edited transcript. [Note: Topix is a financial supporter of OJR. As a result, OJR editor Robert Niles did not participate in the reporting or editing of the story, which was edited by OJR graduate assistant editor Noah Barron.]

OJR: What happens in a Topix and media company partnership? What’s the benefit to media companies?

Tolles: It’s a no-brainer for them. They get content up without any work on their part. There’s additional ad inventory. And there are opportunities down the road for them to actually integrate their journalism and the commentary – using forums as a place to get stories, to take the pulse of the community.

The opportunity in the partnership is to work with several different large networks and a massive audience that federates between them, and to monetize that.

OJR: You take the comments on newspaper articles and cross-post to Topix sites.

Tolles: Right, if someone comments on an article about the New England Patriots in MediaNews Group’s Lowell, Massachusetts newspaper, it appears in the Lowell paper as well as to the New England Patriots section on Topix and on the Topix local page. Likewise, a comment on the Patriots page on Topix will also go into the newspaper page. It feeds off each other to create greater utility out of that same comment, filling up empty room. It also drives more traffic back to the original story.

OJR: Have you learned lessons from previous partnerships that you plan to apply to MediaNews Group?

Tolles: We want to make sure that we engage with their local sites quickly. Essentially, the more input and feeling of participation that the people who work there have, the better they’ll feel. I think that’s the biggest lesson. The other challenge is for us to figure out how what we’re doing isn’t just an adjunct of what they’re doing, but rather central to their mission.

OJR: Are people at newspapers resistant to the integration?

Tolles: Not on the online side, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a news editor that likes unedited comments on their site. News editors would want to vet every comment, which would kill the whole system.

OJR: Are you looking at other partnerships? What are you doing in the future?

Tolles: We are. We are also working on another product, a hyperlocal editing platform. On Topix, we have a “wires” page with a whole list of articles we’ve crawled from the Net. We also have a “news” page that can either be automated with an algorithm to figure out the top story every couple of hours, or managed by an editor who pulls stories from the wires or the Web to create a custom news page. This page is centered around a subject or topic. Ideally you get three or four people from the community to take charge of this and an editor who walks in once in a while to make sure nothing’s wrong. It’s a way to create a micro-targed news section with very little editorial on top of it.

For example, if the LA Times wanted to create a page for Silver Lake, you could have an editor feature the paper’s Silver Lake stories on the site, solicit comments, and solicit first person reporting from the community. We have a whole system to manage all that. We’re working to provide that syndicated product to other people now.

OJR: The upside of those pages is obviously matching them to local advertising.

Tolles: Monetization, absolutely. It provides a way of creating more product for less money. MediaNews Group and Topix share revenue from ads on the comment and forum pages.

OJR: Let’s talk about your competitors. One of them is Google. In August, Google announced that they were asking people featured in news articles to comment. What’d you think of that?

Tolles: I was very worried about that. But if you’re only going to allow people featured in the article to comment, then it’s going to be a boutique, hand-cranked feature that requires a very, very high editorial touch. And Google’s not the high editorial touch kind of place. That was launched three or four months ago, and I don’t think it’s had any effect. Google’s our number one advertiser, and they’re a great partner of ours. I just don’t think they’re going to compete with us in this area.

OJR: Which competitors are you worried about then?

Tolles: There’s no one person doing what we do. Yahoo! had comments on all of their articles until last December. They have a lot more resources that could be aimed at us than Google. They don’t mind putting content on their site. So they have all the pieces to build a much more effective weapon against us. They just have not done so.

Pluck provides comment sections to newspapers, but they don’t have their own websites. They compete for partner business.

OJR: Up until earlier this year, Topix didn’t use human editors. Why’d you add them?

Tolles: Topix has gone for a volume strategy – getting the most people who can participate in your online community and trying to automate the process of moderation to take out true horror from the commentary. The same automated system we use to aggregate and categorize news content, we use in the commentary space. We hide about 10% of all comments before they ever hit the site. We optimized the automated system for growth. If the comments are too horrible, then people stop commenting. If you take too many comments out, then you don’t grow as fast.

We’re about freedom of speech, but a newspaper, for example, might have a much different editorial sense. We’re OK with hot-blooded comments. Some newspapers aren’t. It comes down to making a better product.

There’s a cultural problem: Newspapers don’t want to see bad comments. An editor is almost viscerally offended by an insensitive comment. We’re not. If you come in with the attitude that 1% of comments are great, then the challenge becomes how to escalate the good comments out of the mass of bad commentary.

OJR: Enter citizen journalism?

Tolles: The New York Times is not going to emerge fully formed out of a comment system, but the New York Times isn’t the desired result either. Ideally, with citizen reporters – I don’t want to say “journalists” because “journalism” has certain ethical and stylistic burdens – you’ll see several different reports of the same thing, and you, as the reader, will have to make the decision yourself on what really happened, what’s true and what’s not. A newspaper generally tries to provide an analyzed result, a fair and balanced report of what happened. What the Internet did to travel agencies, it’s going to do to journalism. Travel agents used to have recommendations for hotels, now they say, “Go choose yourself. If you make a mistake, it’s your fault.” An article becomes the start of a product, not the product itself.

Reporters aren’t graded on how many people read their articles. They’re not judged on whether their articles made money. In the last decade or two, reporters tend to think the Pulitzer is the ultimate recognition. Pulitzers are decided by other journalists. At the end of the day, what does that matter? Getting commentary, getting people excited, changes what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to create the most politicized, polarizing article possible. You want to get right in the middle and throw a hand grenade. That’s what people used to do in newspapers.

The beauty of this is maybe we’ll help bring journalism back to its origins. The golden age of newspapers was when they made you angry or made you happy. They weren’t boring. They heart of journalism is not where it is today. Fox News is the closest thing we have to real journalism. It’s successful.

If you’re going to do something, do something that people will like. I’m sick of this idea that journalism’s a priesthood. It’s not. The First Amendment covers all of us, not just journalists. There are no specific privileges that journalists should have that aren’t afforded to everybody. Why don’t you just do something that people will want to read and talk about?

The Internet being the first mass two-way communications medium gives you the opportunity to get people involved. The way to do that is to talk about issues that no one wants to talk about that have historically caused the most commotion. That’s what newspapers should do. Instead, newspapers say: Let’s not talk about the homeless in San Francisco because people are going to be upset. No, the goal is to get people upset. That’s what citizen journalism brings to the party. That is destiny. There’s no fighting it. That is the way it will be.

OJR: But we’ve seen recently how citizen journalism can lead to tragic results. Are there ethical problems with building a platform that enables something like that to happen?

Tolles: I believe in the purloined letter approach. You need to make sure that there’s an information overload on any given person so it’ll take a lot more to ruin their lives. There are limits of what I want to see online, but those limits are a lot different than what a typical newspaper editor would have. You have to honor the scale of the problem. If your requirement is to have no bad comments, then you’ll have four comments on your site. I’ll have 80,000 a day. At the end of the day, I’m a big fan of supply and demand. Those are the real laws of the world. As long as there’s a demand, we’re going to create a supply. If your religion prohibits you from dealing with reality, you should probably change your religion.

OJR: Is that the general feeling in the Web 2.0 community?

Tolles: Web 2.0 is all about bringing people into the conversation and making the media, the product of Hollywood and New York, into the starting point of more interesting conversations.

As for the commercial aspect, well, I think journalists should all be publishers. They should all be responsible for bringing in an audience and monetizing that audience. If you’re disconnected from that, then you’re inherently not understanding your profession.

OJR: Lastly, do you have any plans to expand globally?

Tolles: We rolled out Canadian news a couple years ago. Probably would have been better if we rolled out in the UK because the advertising dollars are higher there. But I don’t think we have any plans to go global more than to license our stuff to a foreign partner. We’ve had several conversations with large publisher coalitions in other countries – we might sell the Topix system in the German language, for example. But there’s enough market in the US to be successful.

The thing is, how do you get newspapers to think about communities as an opportunity? MediaNews Group looks at it like they’ve got to do this. That’s pretty forward thinking.

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!


  1. hmmm…Tolles uses the term “citizen reporter”–yet doesn’t fully articulate what makes a “reporter” different from a “journalist.” Why doesn’t he just be honest and call it “user generated content”–when that may be just what he’s thinking.

  2. This Topix interview is exactly the kind of advertiser puff piece that OJR should inveigh against. What were you thinking, Niles?

  3. We cover major deals involving the online news industry (and we do Q&As with dot-com site leaders all the time). I referred this one to my staff when we heard about it, then sat out the rest of the process. I’ll do the same with any stories involving Yahoo management.