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 by BuzzFeed 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 an Upworthy 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]