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: coal, originalism, literature, American entrepreneurship, Twitter, 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. But Pew 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. 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?

Related: Why NY Mag and Chartbeat tracked what turns first-time visitors into loyal readers | ‘Sideways’ visitors to news sites are less engaged, Pew finds

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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