Chances are, if you’re reading this story online, you didn’t click on a link from Editor & Publisher’s homepage. You found it either by seeing a link on Twitter, clicking on a headline on Facebook, or the paranoid journalist that you are was searching “death of the homepage” to figure out if you needed to quickly strengthen your resume.
Back in May, BuzzFeed published an internal memo from the New York Times that detailed a dramatic drop in traffic to the Times’ homepage from 2011 to 2013. How dramatic? After reaching a peak of about 160 million homepage visits in the early part of 2011, homepage traffic has plummeted about 50 percent to 80 million or so by the end of 2013.
“Traffic to the home page has been declining, month after month, for years,” according to the Times’ report. “Traffic to section fronts is negligible. Traffic on our mobile apps, which are mostly downstream replicas of our home page and section fronts, has declined, as well.”
Since then, it seems every media writer has hurried to pump out their own obituary of the homepage. Zach Seward, the product director and senior editor of Quartz, put it rather bluntly, writing, “The new news habit is no habit at all.”
So is it time for the Washington Post’s homepage to look more like Gawker or the Wall Street Journal to adopt Quartz’s no homepage approach? Hardly.
The only thing that needs to die is the misconception among reporters and editors that the homepage is going to remain the most important way to drive traffic to a story.
But editors would be short-sighted to think their homepage, which still probably drives a significant amount of traffic to news stories, is obsolete. In fact, here are four reasons why the homepage will remain valuable in the age of social media:
1. The homepage is vital in terms of branding
Despite the reduction in traffic, newspaper homepages harken back to the historic place the front page of a newspaper had in the community. Forgive me for sidestepping into marketing speak, but editors should think of their news organization’s homepage as their ultimate brand statement.
In an instant, members of the community (both readers and advertisers) can quickly see what the site is about, what’s going on that’s important to the community and why they should bother spending time there. In an Internet ecosystem that is becoming more and more scattered, media organizations do have an ability to build brand loyalty with readers, and the homepage can still play an important part in nurturing that loyalty.
Wall Street Journal Digital Network managing editor Raju Narisetti told the Nieman Journalism Lab that despite the decline in their site’s homepage visits, it’s this branding the homepage offers that’s vital to overall traffic. “Ultimately, the curated aspect of the homepage brings people to big brands, right?” Narisetti notes that the trick is to keep them on your site, and the homepage can be a powerful tool in increasing engagement.
“I still need to make sure the homepage is engaging—just not get too hung up on people coming there first,” said Narisetti. “It’s more of an engagement play than a front-door-audience play these days.”
2. Some social traffic is coming from community members sharing homepage content
One thing that’s being glossed over is the importance of a news organization’s homepage still has in setting a community agenda. Yes, more and more traffic is coming from the so-called “side door” of Twitter and Facebook, but where are people sharing those stories seeing them first?
Vox’s Ezra Klein makes the point that a group of small but committed power users are still coming to your homepage and sharing stories that other readers pick up. Social media may be bringing you those readers, but it was the highlighting of stories on the homepage and section fronts that made the stories visible in the first place.
The same is true with SEO. Google takes art and story placement into account when it determines which stories come up in its searches, so having a well-designed homepage can help drive search traffic to stories, especially if a story can get a large burst of initial traffic to an article. In that case, traffic is still being driven by the homepage, but not directly.
3. You shouldn’t put all your traffic eggs into tech giants’ baskets
I’ve written multiple columns about the types of stories that go viral on Facebook, and the psychology behind why people share content. Basically, while sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy can craft content specifically designed to tickle Facebook readers, news organizations have a duty to cover stories that are important to the community, but might not be that sexy on social media.
For instance, news organizations posted numerous stories about the riots over a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. but sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noticed they went virtually unseen initially on Facebook, forced out of her feed by post after post of ALS ice bucket challenges. This type of algorithmic filtering gives organizations like Facebook the ability to potentially silence important stories, something Tufekci refers to as a “net neutrality issue.” The lack of transparency in many social media sites means you should think long and hard about eliminating your homepage and putting all your traffic in the hands of these sites.
4. The homepage is valued by loyal and engaged readers
Most newspaper websites have some sort of paywall in place at this point, with most favoring the metered approach being used by Gannett, the New York Times and others. Those paying customers are much more loyal to your website that most readers, and as such, depend on the homepage more than other users to navigate the content.
Demian Perry, the director of mobile for NPR, notes that while the growth of mobile web traffic is dwarfing the growth of traffic from apps (the mobile equivalent of visiting a website’s homepage), those users are much more engaged and loyal.
“Even though they’re a smaller percentage of overall traffic, app users listen to much more audio,” said Perry. “Mobile users might visit a couple of pages and stay on the site for five minutes, but our app audience seems more willing to listen to a stream for an hour.”
A report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism echoes this lack of engagement. According to the analysis, a user who visits a news site directly spends, on average, 4 minutes and 36 seconds per visit, while a Facebook user spends just an average of 1 minute 41 seconds on your site. In addition, direct visitors view about five times as many pages per month as Facebook users, and visit the site three times as often.
Despite all this, the one clear takeaway from the Times’ report is something every Web designer for the last 10 years has keenly understood—every page is now your homepage.
It’s a balancing act to be sure, but despite obituaries and naysaying pundits, the homepage still has a vital place in any newsroom’s digital engagement strategy. RT if you agree.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org