When Topix.net of Palo Alto first came on the scene last year, some folks saw it as a possible threat to newspapers. Like Google News, Topix aggregates news from thousands of sources into one place. Some saw Topix possibly stealing eyeballs from newspapers, especially locals, because of its breadth of coverage.

In reality, publishers and Topix have a symbiotic relationship. Topix relies on publishers for content, and publishers benefit from the traffic Topix drives to their Web sites. The New York Times apparently understands this, because tomorrow it’s expected to announce a deal wherein it’ll pay to have its headlines featured on the Topix site.

Topix will give ”featured placement” to Times headlines in 80 of the site’s 150,000 categories, such as world news, U.S. news or Bronx news. The headlines will appear at the top of each page, in a box that separates them from other news headlines. (Example here.) CEO Rich Skrenta says when a Topix news page — generated automatically by a computerized algorithm — includes Times headlines, those will be pulled from the list and featured at the top of the page.


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The Times will pay Topix for each click through to its Web site.

“The fact that the Times is comfortable having their name next to ours is a pretty big deal,” Skrenta said earlier tonight.

The concept, Skrenta says, was the brainchild of Mike Markson, VP of business affairs. He noticed the Times and Washington Post were buying search engine advertising tied to certain news-related keywords (example here) as a way to lure people to their Web sites.

“We’re like, hey, they’re buying story clicks,” Skrenta said. “And we said, hey, a headline is the best ad.”

It seems to be another in a string of smart partnerships for Topix. But might it also be a slippery slope? For better or worse, sites such as Topix and Google News are known for having little or no human intervention in their story placement and search result rankings. Will users now need to worry about publishers buying their way to the top of Topix search results? What happens when other papers such as the Post want to compete with the Times for placement?

Skrenta doesn’t see a problem. “We haven’t changed our editorial algorithm,” he says. (FAQ about that here.) And he notes that the headlines are clearly set apart from the other, algorithmic, results on the page. There should be no confusion about which headlines are sponsored and which are not. Moreover, the Times has exclusive rights to those categories, though Topix hopes to cut deals with other publishers for other categories.

Since we had him on the phone, we also asked Skrenta about this much discussed idea that Google can’t run ads on Google News because publishers will sue its pants off for trying to make money off their copyrighted content. Topix does run ads next to its news headlines, but hasn’t faced problems. Skrenta says the legal threat from publishers is overblown, if it exists at all. He says among all the publishers he’s talked with, none has raised legal questions about Topix’ business model. Most are just happy to have Topix driving traffic to their sites.