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vote boxWhen you’ve built what is apparently the largest “local forum” on the Internet, how do you get even bigger? Chris Tolles, the chief executive of news and forum site Topix, said the answer is politics.

We spoke to Tolles back in October, shortly after Topix launched polls about every federal election in the United States, as well as local races in 37 states. Those polls received 200,000 votes and 100,000 comments and led to a spike in traffic — Tolles said Topix saw 140 million pageviews in both September and October, its high point for the year.

Now Tolles tells me that he’s looking to make a more permanent shift towards more political content. The company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is looking at how to keep that momentum going outside of the election season. The goal, Tolles said, is to create a place where people can find “a continuous set of news and interactive features” discussing their elected officials. That includes featuring different Congressional bills and trying to show how they’re relevant to readers.

There’s no shortage of political coverage and commentary online already, but Topix tries to give the discussion a local spin — for example, during its polls last fall, Topix broke down the response on different national issues by region, so you could compare opinions on (say) health care between San Francisco and Bakersfield. (And unlike many sites that see heavy concentrations of readership in tech-friendly urban areas like San Francisco, Tolles said Topix’s readership tends to come from small- and medium-sized cities.)

So why the new political focus? For one thing, it’s a way for Topix to go after the growing amount of money spent on election advertising. In my past conversations with Tolles, he’s almost bragged about how fiery and angry the comments on Topix can get, but now it sounds like he wants to temper that passion with a little more substance:

This stuff is incredibly juicy, without being salacious … Getting a local take is important, and this is a way for our commentary-focused site to draw attention to issues which are controversial and comment sticky, in a way that national sites can’t duplicate.

Topix’s investors include a trifecta of news companies — Gannett Company, The McClatchy Company, and Tribune Company.


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