If my hunch is right, Chris Tolles has a better shot at representing the future of media than does Chris Matthews and his ilk. And that would be so fine by me--and probably lots of you, as well.
At the Web 2.0 Expo last week, I had a long conversation with Tolles, who runs Topix.com, about the fragmentation of media and where technology is taking it. If you're not familiar with Topix, get to know it.
Tolles operates on the sound assumption that the media outlets with the most engaged audiences will thrive. Nowadays, about 60 percent of the content on his site consists of original user content. Reader opinion gets featured prominently next to regular news feeds. In addition, Topix uses a network of volunteer editors (around 4,400) who package and post news tailored to their localities.
My hunch is that most mainstream media would choke at the prospect, but you want the most people participating.
This is how Tolles put it to me: "As we're seeing all the time, newspapers, which once were local monopolies, are watching that one-time windfall go off to money heaven. When newspapers go on the Internet, they make 10 percent of what they used to make. I'm giving Molotov cocktails to the mob. If the sheriff is a bad guy in a small time, what you want is some guy who just got shafted to go online while he's still hot and say this jerk sheriff, etc. etc. You want a platform for opinions that can speak truth to power for the individual."
The formula's working. ComScore now rates Topix just behind The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today in terms of individually branded Web sites. Knight Ridder, the Tribune Company, and Gannett liked what they saw and bought up a 75 percent chunk of the company.
Most people in New York and San Francisco many not be using Topix, but Tolles has a bigger audience in mind: most of the folks between the coasts, who are increasingly underserved by corporate media.
I'm generalizing here, but it's safe to say that vapid television coverage that's less and less relevant to their lives has become the norm, rather than the exception, everywhere in this country--especially outside the big urban population centers.
Does anyone seriously doubt that we're at a point where the need to talk back to the talking heads is super-important? The orgy of idiocy surrounding the Jeremiah Wright coverage is a perfect case in point. I thought I was inured to the banality that informs the punditry of Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Sean Hannity, and the rest of the blabatocracy. Not even close. If I didn't know any better, I'd think the electronic media had collectively adopted the new corporate slogan: "All Jeremiah Wright, All the Time."
Let me see if I've got this right. Oil's hovering near an all-time high, rising prices combined with food shortages are responsible for riots around the world, and we've got ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN are literally wasting hours on the existential significance of a Chicago pastor. As we used to say in Brooklyn, give me a frigging break.
Topix is on to a big idea, and so if Tolles or any other start-up can shake up the media landscape, more power to them. Too many important stories are passing by without notice.