3 takeaways from the death of the homepage

By btails     09/30/2022
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3 takeaways from the ‘death of the homepage’ and The New York Times innovation report

By Sam Kirkland • May 19, 2014

Last week, Quartz and The Atlantic declared the homepage dead — killed by social media platforms, the "side doors" that deliver readers directly to stories.

The occasion for this round of epitaphs: The New York Times innovation report,obtained in full by Mashable, which shows Times homepage traffic has fallen by about 50 percent in recent years:

Epitaphs get clicks. Among other things The Atlantic has declared dead or soon-to-be-dead: coaloriginalismliteratureAmerican entrepreneurshipTwitter, and Osama bin Laden. (OK, we’ll give them that last one.)

In Web headline parlance, dead usually doesn't really mean dead: It means a previously dominant force in an industry has lost some influence. And that's definitely true of the homepage: While 80 million monthly homepage visitors would delight most publishers, the decrease does indicate a sea change. Here are three takeaways from what the Times report had to say about direct traffic:

More social referrals = less engagement?

Despite the drop in homepage visitors, Times page views have remained fairly steady:

But average time spent on site fell by about five minutes, or roughly 18 percent, between May 2012 and May 2013:

People are still visiting the Times, but they're doing so via indirect means: "side doors" like Facebook and Twitter. That behavior change wouldn't be such a challenge for news sites if social visitors were as engaged with the content as direct visitors are. ButPew found that visitors arriving from Facebook view far fewer stories per visit than visitors arriving directly do:

That’s why so many news organizations are desperate to find ways to keep readers on site after they've visited an article page. The Los Angeles Times brings its homepage to you, transitioning to a homepage or section page at the bottom of many stories.Quartz doesn’t have a homepage — just a scroll of stories. TIME.com has an infinite scroll of stories populated with top news. And Advance newspapers have experimented with retooling homepages as streams of stories.

It'a also why social juggernauts like Upworthy are trying to find more meaningful metrics than page views and unique visitors. It can be easy to get social clicks — just declare something dead! — but more news sites need to follow New York magazine's lead and track what converts one-time visitors into loyal readers.

80 million visitors isn't zero

Although the graphics above indicate a massive change in how readers discover content, the homepage isn't so dead that it should be buried or cremated. If you mess with your legacy media site's homepage, you'll hear about it from upset readers who bookmark you, as NBC News learned.

Quartz can afford to go homepage-less because it doesn't have readers with decade-old bookmarking or URL-typing habits. But if the homepage were truly dead, the Times would consider dropping it altogether; instead, the innovation report simply argues that "the realities of a cluttered Internet and distracted mobile world now require us to make even more of an effort to get our journalism to readers."

So it's not either/or — as Ezra Klein argues, most media brand homepages "are still way too popular to absorb massive changes without reader backlash."

Klein also suggests that the homepage is still of value to a subset of power users who do the sharing that casual readers depend on. In other words, social sharing still has to start somewhere:

"It's tough to track the chains of social shares. But my experience — and that may not be worth much — is that many of them are coming to your home page. Some of the most committed users are still clicking through the RSS feed (which is one reason Vox maintains a full-text RSS feed). These groups are smaller as a percentage of the whole than they used to be. But they're the people who care enough to read everything and share lots of it."

What about mobile apps?

As Quartz's Zach Seward points out, native apps are "pull media," relying on readers actively seeking them out — not unlike a website's homepage. Contrast that with increasingly popular "push media," content that meets you where you are, mixed with your friend's status updates and wedding pictures on Facebook. There, news is "common but incidental," as Pew puts it.

That's why it's so interesting that the Times's major recent innovation play is... a mobile app, closed-off from social and search. While NYT Now sends breaking news alerts, it still mostly depends on readers coming to it directly, just as the Times's other iOS app does. And that app is losing users:

Cory Bergman of Breaking News argues that apps need to provide actual utility, and the Times innovation report seems to acknowledge that apps need to do more than just mimic the homepage: "Traffic on our mobile apps, which are mostly downstream replicas of our home page and section fronts, has declined as well."

NYT Now is beautiful to navigate, but is that enough to justify making its curated content available only to those willing to download an app and consciously decide to consume it?







When the founders of Upworthy were planning their site, they considered a question that a few years ago would have sounded suicidal: "Should we have no homepage?" They wondered whether staffers’ time would be better spent meeting readers where they were already hanging out—on social media, largely—than to hope readers would type a URL into their address bar. It was clear that most people simply didn’t find content through homepages as much anymore, and that is was only a matter of time before a media outlet didn’t even bother with one.

Few sites are immune to the abandonment of the homepage, but if there was one survivor, it was reasonable to guess that it would be nytimes.com. News consumers have long made the trusted site a habit, and the Internet Wayback Machine shows that the Times has barely felt the need to tweak its homepage design in the last decade and a half. But last week, an internal New York Times report attained byBuzzFeed showed that even this homepage is quickly becoming less relevant.

This chart is on page 18 of the report:

The report shows that in less than two years, visits to the nytimes.com homepage dropped nearly by half. "Our home page has been our main tool for getting our journalism to readers, but its impact is waning," the report says. "Only a third of our readers ever visit it."

This prompted an Internet-wide cry of "the homepage is dead," an proclamation that feels new—or at least, newly pressing—every time it spreads. "The ‘homepage is dead’ [notion] is almost 10 years old," says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. "That tells you something about the time it’s taken for this to move from being an edge conversation to something that’s causing alarm right in the middle of the mainstream."

Now that the reactionary cry has calmed down, it’s worth asking: If "the homepage is dead" is finally causing alarm in the right places, what are news sites doing about it?

The Homepage Can Be Anything

New media companies have better recognized the changing role of the homepage, which is reflected in what they are choosing to feature—or not feature—on their pages. Medium, for example, the new content site by Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, doesn’t display any of its stories on its homepage. Instead, it uses the space to recruit new writers, many of whom are amateurs. Its homepage is clean and simple. "Your audience awaits. Tell a story on Medium today," it says, and then offers a green button that says "Start writing."

Quartz, a new business site launched by Atlantic Media, which brags that it is "digitally native," does feature some stories on its homepage. But it does so in a very different way than the grid style, content-heavy homepages of old. Instead, Qz.com highlights a single story that takes up almost the entire homepage. A drop-down menu at the top features not just subject sections (as homepages traditionally have), but can also be filtered by "obsessions," which include major news stories of the month, such as the Ukraine Crisis, or ongoing topics of cultural interest, like the cloud.

Kevin Delaney, editor in chief and cofounder of Quartz, says that the site’s homepage brings in only about 10-15% of their traffic, and so he looks at it almost like an article page. "It didn’t make sense for us to devote resources to the homepage: design resources, development resources, or editor resources to maintain it," says Delaney. "But there is an interesting question we’re thinking about a lot: Can a homepage do a job other than being an index of headlines?" The answer to that question, he said, will determine how the Quartz homepage evolves from here.

Upworthy, meanwhile, eventually did launch with a homepage, though it was a rudimentary one featuring just three stories. Today, the page has added more stories, but Upworthy cofounder Peter Koechley says his company has been far more focused on attracting users via email, Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. "That turned out to be a good bet," he said. "We now have 8 million subscribers whose news feeds and inboxes serve as Upworthy's daily homepage."

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of sites still hanging on to the old homepage style: a good deal of content on the page, laid out in some kind of grid. FastCompany.com has that kind of homepage, though certainly not every piece we publish is featured there. Some are only promoted on social media.

Perhaps the most successful of the old school homepages today is HuffingtonPost.com, where traffic actually increased since the first quarter of this year, according to Huffington Post managing editor Jimmy Soni. The page features a seemingly endless scroll of content (over 200 stories were featured at a single time this week, by our count), and a massive splash at the top of the page.

This splash, which includes a large-size photo and a headline in all caps, is often used to express an opinion. "We don’t hide from fact that we have a voice," said Soni. "We often use our homepage to drive a message." Sometimes, the splash is creative (a "Poke the pope" headline after the Pope joined Facebook), while at other times it is controversial (a coat hanger image to go with an abortion story).

The Huffington Post still deeply values and focuses on its homepage, and so it keeps 10 homepage editors on staff. These editors pore over endless data about how people are coming to the homepage, why, and when. More legacy media outlets like the Washington Post also still have homepage editors; the Post recently posted a job listing for homepage editors for three different shifts, requiring not only the ability to write headlines but also technology experience.

How the Homepage Survives

With that kind of devotion to the supposedly dead homepage, it’s hard to truly write its obit. But perhaps the homepage as we know it—a place that, like newspaper front pages, have historically been driven by the news judgment of editors—is near death. Justin Ellis, assistant editor at Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, says the massive amount of data now available to homepage editors has made the job, and the homepage itself, far different than what it once was. "The way they program these pages have changed," he said. "Editors now are trying to find more and more information about the usage and consumption patterns of people."

Upworthy, for its part, says it plans to use the data it’s getting to make different homepages for different users. Loyal fans who type in the homepage URL, for example, may someday see a different page than new readers who land on anUpworthy story and then jump to the homepage second to learn more about the site. "I can see differentiating the homepage pretty dramatically in the future for these two cases," said Koechley. "There’s no reason those pages should look the same."

And so, what can be definitively said about the homepage of the future? "I don’t think in the near term we’ll see anyone abandoning home pages," said Ellis. "Instead we'll just see new ways to make them relevant."

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Saff]