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Web Site Puts Personal Spin on News Surfing

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Chris McGill, the founder of a new McLean start-up called Mixx, is hoping to change the way Web surfers access news.

Mixx, launched in October, aims to let users filter through all the online clutter and get the specific fresh content they want. Users submit interesting items they've spotted online, vote on the news they like and post their comments.

Sound familiar? Well, yes, it's similar to a formula established by other "social news" sites out there -- Digg and Reddit, to name two of the most popular. But McGill hopes Mixx will stand apart from the competition with a few innovations and unique offerings, such as its array of customizing features.

"Digg and Reddit are wonderful, but they are one-size-fits-all," said McGill, a former Yahoo News and USA Today executive.

Thanks to McGill's contacts in the news industry, he has forged relationships with such outlets as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and USA Today. Washingtonpost.com does not have a partnership with Mixx.

The Mixx home page offers up a batch of stories similar to those Web surfers might find elsewhere. On a recent day, there was an item about the aftermath of earthquakes in China, linked from a British newspaper's Web site, and an entertainment story about the "Sex and the City" movie, linked from a movie blog -- the same types of articles, in other words, as at Google News.

But Mixx users are encouraged to start an account and configure a start page with news topics of their choice. Users can pick subjects, or "tags," from "Alzheimer's" to "Star Wars." If a tag doesn't exist, they can start a news group with a few clicks. Group creators can determine whether they are public or invite-only.

Mixx's partner news sites such as CNN feature a Mixx button next to their articles. Mixx users can click the button, tag the story and share it with other Mixx readers.

"The great thing about Mixx is that you can find groups that are very specific to what you like," said Danielle Brigida, associate operations coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation in Reston. She and her colleagues started a group on Mixx to keep up with news about environmental activism.

Though it isn't unusual for social news sites to let users customize what type of articles are streamed to them, Mixx compartmentalizes each topic into a separate box on a user's page. The typical Mixx user has about a dozen such boxes on her page.

Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman praised Mixx's approach as user-friendly. "They've taken some good ideas that are already working and added some bells and whistles," he said.

Though Reddit and Mixx are in the same sort of business, Huffman said there is still plenty of room for growth in this market. So far, social news sites are mainly used by a particular tech- and Web-savvy audience, he said. The dream is to break through to wider audiences.

"The vast majority of people don't know what social news is; they still get their news from the mainstream media," Huffman said. "This space and this industry still have a long, long way to go."

Whether Mixx's customization options will be enough to make it a hit remains to be seen. Drew Curtis, the founder of a popular offbeat news aggregate site called Fark, said he is skeptical that such tools are enough to make the site a success.

"Most people don't bother with them because they're either lazy or they just don't care," he said. Curtis said that most Web surfers gravitate toward sites that already offer the general blend of news they are looking for.

Neither the start-up nor its partner companies pay one another. Mixx is not bringing in any revenue yet, but it is expected to make money from advertising. Since most users customize their start pages, McGill said the site will be especially valuable for advertisers, who will be able to place ads that are tightly targeted.

The start-up has a dozen employees.

Mixx gets about 500,000 unique visitors per month, with about 50,000 visitors on a typical weekday, McGill said. Digg, by comparison, gets almost 26 million visitors monthly, according to Quantcast, an online measurement service.

Because user-driven sites like these depend on their users to submit content and provide a sense of community, the site that already has the bigger audience tends to stay on top, said Muhammad Saleem, a social media marketing analyst with Advantage Consulting Services.

"It's a chicken-or-egg thing," he said.

But Saleem said he thinks Mixx is worth watching. For one thing, the site seems to have already inspired a loyal following, he said.

A tech worker named Joe Fowler who lives in Kentucky counts himself as an early fan. He used to be a Digg user, but he doesn't visit the site much anymore. Fowler particularly likes that he has been able to customize his Mixx account to filter out stories about the popular tech topic of "search engine optimization," for example, because it's a subject where the conversations tend to run in circles, he finds.

"I got tired of reading somebody's blog about reading somebody's blog," he said.

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