Topix.net doesn’t produce a shred of news content on its own. Like Google News, it’s a news aggregator, pulling together headlines from thousands of sources. But that hasn’t stopped users around the country from mistakenly emailing the company to suggest news stories or to comment about something happening in their community.

With that in mind, the Palo Alto start-up is unleashing an overhaul of its site tonight. It starts with a new, cleaner look. And beneath the redesign are many new features – the ability to comment on stories, user forums, better organization of search results, a “what-bloggers-are-talking about-now” page, and the ability for users to post their own stories.

It’s a pretty significant shift for CEO Rich Skrenta and his team because it moves Topix from a one-way, news consumption site to a two-way, interactive platform.

“The nature of news is changing as interactivity comes into play,” said Chris Tolles, VP of marketing for Topix. “The number of people blogging and wanting to participate seems to be an opportunity.”

Topix has 360,000 category pages, some for topical areas, such as Nascar, others for geographic areas, such as San Jose. In the sidebar of each topic page will be links for users who want to contribute stories of their own, or post messages in forums. A comments link will hang below each story summary for those who want to comment on stories.

Tolles and Skrenta are the first to acknowledge that the current crop of citizen journalism sites has not lived to up to its promise. Readers are not contributing to the sites in significant numbers; often when you visit one, it feels like walking into an empty room.

Part of the problem, Skrenta and Tolles say, is these sites don’t have enough traffic. Topix does have traffic – five million unique visitors a month – though it’s wide and shallow, spread across many thousands of categories.

“We have, we hope, a reasonable amount of audience,” Tolles said, ”so that you’ll see some participation. We have the seed of content and the tools of participation.”

Skrenta also believes the site will appeal to users in areas not well-served by mainstream media sources who may be reluctant to blog for whatever reason. Indeed, Topix isn’t assuming that people will only want to discuss the news they find on Topix. Skrenta and Tolles say the geographically local Topix pages can become hubs for community discussions about whatever is relevant to people. Same goes for the myriad of Topix category pages.

“Building online communities around geography or topic categories is definitely the goal,” Tolles said.

Despite its scale, community-building could be challenging for Topix, though. For a lot of people, Topix is not the local news brand – that distinction goes to the local TV station or newspaper. Will users gravitate toward to a national site to discuss local issues?

“It’s an interesting idea,” says media consultant Vin Crosbie. “It’s a nice addition to what they’re providing, but I don’t see it as a threat to local newspapers or TV stations. The problem they have is they don’t have a local brand name and identity.”

Topix is jointly owned by three newspaper companies, Knight Ridder, Gannett and Tribune. Topix has been working on integrating its technology into sites owned by those companies. Now it’s turning its attention back to innovations on its own site. Nonethless, some of the new features could find their way onto the web sites operated by the newspaper companies. So far, newspaper sites have lagged woefully behind in making their sites interactive.

“My sense is the greatest opportunity (for Topix) will come with some affiliation with a local brand,” said media consultant Susan Mernit.

Topix search results get a new look tonight, too. From now on, search results will be clustered into categories, atop the regular listings of stories. In this way, people who are doing a search on “Google,” for example, can decide if they want to hone in on news about Google technology or Google financials.

On the new blogs news page, Topix is conducting link analysis to determine what people are reading in the blogosphere. Think Memeorandum, but broader.

(A disclaimer: As noted above, Topix is partly owned by Knight Ridder, which owns our employer, the Mercury News.)

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