Online news gatherer Topix aims for election-ad dollars

With its launch of Election 2010: Citizen Sound-Off today, online news aggregator Topix is now the only website to couple localized voter information with a platform for open participation. But can it channel this big election into even bigger ad dollars?

Topix is a privately held online platform that aggregates news by crawling over 50,000 news, government and blog sites every 10 minutes, and then localizing and categorizing that news “semantically” for every town in America.

But CEO Chris Tolles told VentureBeat that Topix only truly grasped how it could be a major destination for political advertising dollars after the site rocketed to number one in spending by the McCain campaign in the 2008 election, according to Nielsen data.

“They ran more ads on us than in the Washington Post,” said Tolles, who said that with 16 million unique visitors, and a marketshare of 25 percent or more of the population in [a hundred or so] towns across the nation, it is sitting pretty heading into midterm elections Nov. 2.

“We attract people into buying political ads in places where they wouldn’t otherwise, which is how we ‘vector’ product to exactly where it needs to be,” said Tolles. “Now, we’ve built a widget into every single forum page that allows for people to participate in dialogue about political races from the highest levels down to something like a local sheriff’s race. That then creates more inventory.”

Tolles said that over the last two days alone, Topix has seen over 10,000 votes in its “proxy elections” and 900 conversations in 900 cities strictly about elections. And with each conversation functioning as a new page, and thus a new space for advertisers to reach consumers, Topix’s ability to create new “self-sustaining” forums for debate in communities is, in a sense, self-funding.

Tolles said that while Topix doesn’t have “hard dollar” amounts for much of this, “that’s part of the challenge.”

“For a business like ours where [around] 60 percent of our revenues come in through ad networks, it is very difficult to pin down how much money is coming through political advertising,” he said. “However, the election season of 2008 was 30 percent higher than the revenue trend line, and we are hoping to take advantage of similar trends here with this product.”

“In the end, some of this traffic will go away completely, and some of it will transition into long-term site usage, which will also be linear to the advertising value.”

Topix has investment backing from Gannett Company, The McClatchy Company and Tribune Company.

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