The New York Times homepage looks a little different this week.
Stories with similar topics are grouped more closely to provide readers with breadth and context. Staples like briefings, The Daily podcast and weather are affixed to the top of the page. Depending on the news of the day, the homepage may feature more and a wider variety of visuals.
And for the first time, readers who visit The New York Times on a phone or tablet, either with an app or on a mobile browser, will have a nearly identical experience to those who visit via the desktop. In fact, the urgency around the homepage redesign was to create one experience that works across the Times’ web presence.
The changes come after a comprehensive research phase, in which researchers visited people in their homes and later tested changes with a small group of readers.
The research found that the journalism was what really mattered, said Libby Gery, vice president of product design, and that people value the Times over other news publishers for its judgment in reporting and curating news.
“Our news judgment is really expressed through the homepage, through our curation on the homepage,” Gery said. “That's something we wanted to preserve. We wanted to amplify it.”
One goal of the redesign was to use layout to emphasize the stories that readers see at the top of the page. The new center column favors a “cleaner presentation of ordering of what we think you need to read to be prepared for the day,” Gery said.
While the research found that readers value news judgment, the Times also heard that story choice is important. Down the page, articles are no longer organized by the Times’ internal desk structure, but in sections like “features” and “smarter living” that are based on reader need and organized in a less hierarchical layout.
“Through the lens of those categorizations, we can get more of our report surfaced,” Gery said. “That’s the nice thing about (the new sections), it’s not limited to a taxonomic organization or desk structure, it pulls from the best of what we have to offer regardless of where it's edited.”
On the backend, the new homepage gives editors more tools to express their storytelling visually and “incorporate more meaningful art and imagery,” she said, “but we still kept the experience largely centered around reading because that’s what we know our readers want and need and always have valued.”
Besides finally giving the Times a single experience across multiple platforms — an effort that Gery described as “a process” — the redesign sets up the ability for homepage personalization.
The Times has already experimented with personalization. “Your Feed” on the Times’ iOS app allows readers to build a custom news feed from 24 available channels, some of which are based on existing verticals and columns while others are completely new. A newsletter launched in May called “Your Weekly Edition” combines editor curation and machine learning to send subscribers a personalized email of news every Friday.
“We’re only starting to experiment with how that can benefit our readers,” Gery said, noting that the Times’ audience has been receptive to the iOS feed and newsletter.
The Times doesn’t view personalization as an alternative to its news judgment, but as an amplification of it. Readers who come back multiple times a day may be offered new stories they missed the first time around that the Times thinks are important.
“The power that it has for our readers is really to broaden their awareness, to provide more delight and surprise, which is the opposite of trapping them in a filter bubble,” Gery said. “We’ve heard that from readers, that they don’t want to be trapped and do want to discover stories they wouldn't have looked for themselves.”
Ultimately, the Times’ investment in its homepage shows that — for the Grey Lady at least, and likely most other news organizations — the homepage is very much alive, despite the countless declarations of its demise. Back then, the accepted dogma was that the social web had won, that the Facebooks and Twitters of the world had rendered curated homepages redundant.
In the era of malignant mis- and disinformation, when instant changes to algorithms can shuffle news off your timeline, doesn’t it make the most sense to get the news straight from the town crier’s mouth?
The New York Times is betting on it.