MEDIA BRANDS: Topix.net's potential to segment audiences sets the site apart from other news gatherers

Earlier this month, a website that claims to be the "Internet's largest news site" launched. You might not have heard about it because Topix.net's arrival was met with little fanfare. Most of the media attention it drew came from b-to-b press focusing, for the most part, on one of two things: either the massive directory from which it aggregates news stories or its business approach designed to attract small business advertisements.

Earlier this month, a website that claims to be the "Internet's largest news site" launched. You might not have heard about it because Topix.net's arrival was met with little fanfare. Most of the media attention it drew came from b-to-b press focusing, for the most part, on one of two things: either the massive directory from which it aggregates news stories or its business approach designed to attract small business advertisements.

If the latter strategy is successful, it would be a real coup for online marketers, who have long been plagued by the reluctance of small firms to advertise on the web. Topix's potential for audience segmentation might be the salve to these firms' worries that most sites, because of the transregional or national appeal of the internet, don't provide targeted-enough readerships for local operations. It's this segmentation that sets something like Topix, which is owned by private investors and run by experts in data mining, apart from perhaps the best-known of aggregators, Google News. Topix offers a much narrower way of organizing news for consumption than does Google's organization by broad topic. Without having to do a keyword search, a user can look for not just business news but content on an industry or major firm. Or a user can enter a ZIP code and get local news for tens of thousands of towns or even get pages on celebrities. Topix's attractiveness is that you go to the site and get coverage of precisely the topics you want. As with Google, there are issues to be ironed out with the prioritizing of the news stories, but, at first blush, Topix is very useful, allowing a user to set preferences for, say, not only stories about the media and PR, but also a hometown or other interests. This, of course, is an imperfect way of consuming news. One thing that's lost in relying on websites, rather than newspapers or TV broadcasts, is the experience of being exposed to information you never would have sought out on your own. Google News captures some of that because of the degree of randomness of its findings. At least compared to Topix, Google has all the breadth of an edition of All Things Considered. But that doesn't seem to be the future, at least not as far as user habits go. Time-pressed news consumers who don't have the time to page through a newspaper want news they can use, in the broadest sense of the phrase. If nothing else, Topix highlights the importance of thinking about the middleman media that organize and distribute news for end-users. Search-engine optimization is an ever-maturing discipline, but the need to think about what these sites mean beyond SEO, down to the very nature of communicating in this bitter free-for-all for attention, is clear. For all the concern about local outlets having been vanquished by national and international goliaths, there are still business motives - most important, the advertising dollars of small firms - for media to take a local approach to news gathering.

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