At Quartz, Zach Seward pulls out a fascinating tidbit from the New York Times' internal review of its digital direction: home page traffic has fallen by half over the last two years. This is true even though the NYT's home page has been beautifully redesigned, and the NYT's overall traffic is up:
(Apologies for the hard-to-read chart: in an unintentionally hilarious angle to all this, the NYT's report on the need to be digital-first appears to be a print-first document that Buzzfeed subsequently scanned, uploaded to the web, and is getting traffic from.)
The trend isn't quite as bad as the chart suggests: The Y axis goes 160 to 80, which means traffic to the home page has fallen by roughly half rather than, as the chart suggests, nearly 100 percent. Still, the Times doesn't mince words:
Traffic to the home page has been declining, month after month, for years. 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.
Ouch. "Home pages, section fronts, and apps are pull media — that is, they rely on readers actively requesting them," comments Seward. "But the new news habit is no habit at all."
This is the conventional wisdom across the industry now: the new home page is Facebook and Twitter. The old home page — which is the actual home page — is dying a slow, painful death.
I'm skeptical. The thing about "push media" is someone needs to do the pushing. Someone has to post an article to Twitter or Facebook. That can be the media brand. It can even be the journalists. But when articles work it's really coming from the readers. Social media is wonderfully, frustratingly organic. Oftentimes the biggest hits are the ones you never even thought to share.
So the next question is where do those readers — the ones seeding your content, and finding your gems — come from? That turns out to be a very, very hard question to answer. 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.
Which is all to say that the homepage may not be dying so much as it's changing. The home page used to be the way most of your readers found your content. It's becoming the way your power users find the content to share with your casual users. As we begin to understand that behavior better it'll likely change the way we build and curate home pages quite a bit.
Medium is an interesting experiment here: They demanded my Twitter information before I could log in, and now the homepage I see there is full of things my friends have liked, or in some cases written — and that means I'm a lot likelier to share it.
Then there's the question of where the homepage is. Quartz's designs makes every page — including a typical article page — function like a mini home page. Readers can come in any door they want but they still find themselves ushered into the living room.
We're at the beginning of those experiments. Media brands are just figuring out how to use Facebook and Twitter. Their home pages are still way too popular to absorb massive changes without reader backlash. But as social-media proficiency builds and the value of the home page declines there will be a lot of experimentation. The home page, after all, is one of the last spaces that publishers actually control, and that committed readers reliably frequent. It'd be crazy to let it die.