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Topix reinvents itself as citizen journalist site

News aggregator redesigns its home page, encourages volunteers to contribute and edit features. Screenshots: The new Topix

Topix is reinventing itself from a software-based news aggregator site to a citizen journalist hub where anyone can submit news and photos and sign up to be a volunteer editor selecting featured stories.

The site also has redesigned its interface to include more and bigger graphics, and has moved its domain from .net to .com as part of a relaunch set for Monday.

Topix is following the user-powered models of the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project (ODP) of Web links in which volunteers are responsible for creating and editing entries. Topix will avoid the spam problem that sites like Digg have by requiring people to sign up with their real names, said Rich Skrenta, chief executive officer. Skrenta is co-founder of the ODP.

Anyone can submit local news by ZIP code through the Web site or from their cell phone. The citizen journalist idea came to executives after they unearthed hidden in the site's forums a posting from a Texas Minuteman of his first-person experience patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, something that wasn't published anywhere else, Skrenta said.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, which launched as a mainstream news aggregation site in 2004, hit a plateau last year. It reached 10 million monthly unique visitors, putting it in the top 25 news sites, but users typically visited few pages and weren't sticking around long, Skrenta said. Allowing for more interactivity will create more stickiness on the sites, which is what makes social networks and other social media sites attractive to advertisers.

"We spent three years building up the audience," Skrenta said. "Now we can give people a microphone?The problem was we were a read-only news site."