What the Death of Homepages Means for the Future of News

News publishers lost the homepage firehose, and gained a social media flood. It's making the news more about readers, and less about news.
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NYTIMES.com

The New York Times lost 80 million homepage visitors—half the traffic to the nytimes.com page—in two years. That's according to this graphic, taken from an internal review of Times digital strategy obtained by BuzzFeed.

This is the clearest illustration of the demise of homepages I've seen. (Well, not literally the clearest; it's somewhat grainy, in an apropos way.) News used to be a destination, and you would go find it on your driveway and in your browser. Now you're the destination, and "information—status updates, photos of your friends, videos of Solange, and sometimes even news articles—come at you; they find you," Quartz's Zach Seward writes.

If the clicks aren't coming from homepages, where are they coming from? Facebook, Twitter, social media, and the mix of email and chat services summed up as "dark social" (dark, because it's hard for publishers to trace). Here's the incoming traffic data from the BuzzFeed network (a bundle of popular sites including BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, the Times, New York magazine, and The Atlantic) in the first three months of  2014.

News publishers lost the homepage firehose, and gained a social media flood. This social flood corresponds with the emergence of another powerful piece of technology: audience analytics software that tells digital publishers what people are reading, and how long they're reading it, with greater specificity than ever. 

One theory is that the rise of twin technological forces—the social flood and the age of analytics—will (a) make the news more about readers; and (b) make news organizations more like each other.

Why should the death of homepages give rise to news that's more about readers? Because homepages reflect the values of institutions, and Facebook and Twitter reflect the interest of individual readers. These digital grazers have shown again and again that they aren't interested in hard news, but rather entertainment, self-help, awe, and outrage dressed up news. Digitally native publishers are pretty good at pumping this kind of stuff out. Hence quizzes, hence animals, hence 51 Photos That Show Women Fighting Sexism Awesomely. Even serious publishing companies know that self-help and entertainment often outperform outstanding reporting.

Second, we should expect—and have already seen—an expedited clustering effect around news tropes, and this clustering is making news organizations more like each other. This goes back to technology. The better publishers can see what audiences are reading, the more they will be inclined to quickly serve up duplicates of the most popular stuff. This is why we have not one BuzzFeed quiz (whose popularity in the pages of a 1950s magazine would have been mysterious) but rather 17,000 quizzes in a matter of weeks from BuzzFeed, Slate, and other publishers. Each quiz's Facebook Like count, numbering in the tens of thousands, broadcasts to other publishers: I'm popular, make more of me!  Even within hard news stories, we see clustering around headline tropes ("You Won't Believe..."; "... in 1 Graph"; "X-Number Things You Y-Verb") across many different sites that should ostensibly be serving different audiences. When you know what works, you do it again and again.

It would be absurd of me to argue that publishers never copied each other before Facebook and analytics software like Chartbeat. But today, the audience feedback loop enabled by these companies isn't a month, or a week. We're reading a real-time stream of audience reaction, and when we see what you like, we're giving it to you again and again. A side-effect of this rapid-fire clustering is that media watchers become cynical of formulas (e.g. BuzzFeed quizzes; Upworthy headlines; Vox explainers) much faster than most readers even catch onto the fact that there is a formula to get sick of.

The upshot is that the death of homepages isn't just a blip. It's helping to change how we make and read news in ways we're only beginning to discover.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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