Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Topix seems to enjoy dragging small towns into the gutter; here's our invitation for it to get out

We reported early this year that local forums run by Topix were both revealing and creating problems for rural places; today The New York Times picked up on the story and got down to the nitty-gritty, with examples from several small towns. Kansas City-based reporter A.G. Sulzberger, son of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, went to the Ozark town of Mountain Grove and Dee's Place, a local hangout where "people are not happy" about Topix:
A waitress, Pheobe Best, said that the site had provoked fights and caused divorces. The diner’s owner, Jim Deverell, called Topix a “cesspool of character assassination.” And hearing the conversation, Shane James, the cook, wandered out of the kitchen tense with anger. His wife, Jennifer, had been the target in a post titled “freak,” he said, which described the mother of two as, among other things, “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Not a word was true, Mr. and Ms. James said, but the consequences were real enough. Friends and relatives stopped speaking to them. Trips to the grocery store brought a crushing barrage of knowing glances. She wept constantly and even considered suicide. Now, the couple has resolved to move.
Sulzberger writes that the concerns about Internet bullying and privacy are familiar, "but in small towns there are complications. The same Web sites created as places for candid talk about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept."

UPDATE: The story quotes Christian Sandvig, an associate professor in communication and media at the University of Illinois, as saying “Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public.” But on the Huffington Post, Sandvig writes, “There are problems. Yet it's not clear to me that these are rural problems.” And the Daily Yonder says the Times should have noted Speak Your Piece, a feature of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., in which anonymous, phoned-in comments are published after being filtered by the weekly's staff.

Topix has found "an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls 'the feud states.' One of the most heavily trafficked forums, he noted, is Pikeville, Ky., once the staging ground for the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry."

That's about enough, Mr. Tolles. You and your newspaper paymasters (Gannett Co., the McClatchy Co. and Tribune Co.) are hereby invited to take your foul product out of rural America. And perhaps newspapers in towns where Topix draws many readers should ask themselves if that's partly because they don't turn over enough rocks and/or run vigorous editorial pages that inspire responsible debate.


Thomas N. said...


True, Topix is godawful and you're to be commended for shaking your fist at it, but there's probably no way to hold Topix accountable for content (although posting salacious items about its founder might help). There are, however, alternatives that encourage free but not unfiltered speech. As you know, The Mountain Eagle (Whitesburg KY) has carried a take-no-prisoners readers' forum, "Speak Your Piece," for decades. Readers can submit items by voicemail, email, or in writing. Some submissions are pretty ugly. But unlike Topix, they're monitored, pre-publication, by the Eagle's staff, and stuff that's downright vicious and ID-specific ends up where it belongs -- in the trash. "Speak Your Piece" is hugely popular, with no need for it to be 100% unfiltered. It's a better spleen-venting model than Topix as well as a good way for rural weeklies to keep readers instead of watching them all depart to the internet.


Anonymous said...

Would be interesting to know why Christian Sandvig thinks "rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public" he was quoted in the article.

Rae Wagoner said...

I think Topix would burn itself out in about 45 minutes in small-town America if posters were required to use a (verified) real name.
The persons "Topixed" about would straighten any misconceptions or flat out lies out pretty quickly where I live.

Chris Tolles said...


I liked your piece. Couple of points:

- We make our own way, separate from our investors as a standalone profitable entity with guaranteed editorial independence. They are not our "paymasters" by a Longshot at this point.

- You are the first person I've seen to call for a greater level of muckraking and discourse in the papers in towns where we are popular. I totally agree. Newspapers where the journalists engage with their audiences and get to the heart of things are much more formidable competitors, and also provide a product better for their communities.

- On that same point, in most of the towns we thrive in, there is no newspaper. There are 1400 daily newspapers in this country and 30,000 towns. While there is much on our site that i'd prefer to be better, there is at least an audience to go to to talk about a local sheriff's election - and 163,000 comments on that issue on my site offer a proof point of that.

We are working to build products that are focused on more civic and political issues and away from interpersonal sniping, and I'll be the first to say I'd like to see a happier use of our platform.

As to your invitation to take our product out of rural America, you are welcome to criticize us here or on Topix, where you'd actually have some audience.

Chris Tolles
CEO Topix

Al Cross said...

Mr. Tolles:

You claim "there is no newspaper" in most of your busy markets, but you cite only daily newspapers, ignoring the 7,000-plus paid-circulation weeklies, many of which do a better job than dailies of engaging with their audiences, especially if they embrace the Internet. Thanks to those weeklies, I believe that in most places in this country, folks can comment about a sheriff's election without using your site.

I salute any effort to focus more on civic and political issues and less on personal attacks. My invitation to leave was, of course, facetious; I look forward to the day when I feel comfortable withdrawing it.

Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Howard Owens said...

Al, how many of those weeklies have robust web sites.

You're right, vigorous, engaged reporting is what people want in many small towns and its something in many towns they don't get. They also often don't get the kind stories people want to talk about -- too often, for many journalist, "serious journalism" equates only to dry recitations of what happened at the town council meeting.

But a bigger problem is the typical newspaper -- especially weeklies -- just don't do online very well. If they have comments/forums at all, they're under managed if managed at all.

From what I've seen, towns with sold news sources combined with a robust online community become the go-to place for community conversation.

A Friend Of Matthew said...

If the metric used to judge the success of online forums is volume of use, then Topix is highly successful and thus profitable. Mr Tolles is correct that Topix media part-owners have no editorial control over Topix, for if they did they would have to take some responsibility, rather than just reaping profit from Topix.

However, volume of comments is not the only possible metric of success, anymore than volume of Oxycontin users is a metric of that drug's success. There is a price paid (not by Topix I might add) for the anonymity of Topix forums and that has come in the form of people having been defamed, losing jobs, adults and children being slandered and shunned (not just in small towns), cyberbullying, and more. There is the toll paid of having no way to distinguish on Topix between what is true and false, and therefore a diluting of the reliability of the site, and potentially of internet news sites in general. Is it really that important that we continue to hold upping the volume of Topix comments above the lives of so many and how many children need to be hurt before it is not worth having Topix run the way that it does?

Secondly, volume of Topix comments does not necessarily mean that the news is better. If about 200 people commented about the NYT article on Topix and the circulation of the paper is about a million papers, then the number of people who commented is 0.02%, Furthermore, scrolling through all of those comments takes forever and thus the likelihood that the commenting is really making it better for the world is unproven.

Actually, what may be more relevant is the number of dinnertime conversations, of friends having a beer or coffee and roundtable debates that occur in real life about news stories.

While online commenting has some value, its relative social benefit is unproven at this point (unless you just want to count the numbers) and its social TOLL in the case of Topix is significant.

jennifer anderson said...

you know it is because there is not much to do in small towns that topix is so popular there.
and people don't have a lot of money to go and do other things for entertainment.
that's all.
no big theory or secret about it.