Blow Up Your Home Page
One of the more fascinating ventures to watch over the next few months will be the new local-news site in Washington, D.C. run by Allbritton, the parent company of Politico. Allbritton will launch the as-yet-unnamed site with a few built-in advantages: the lessons learned turning Politico into a Web success story; material from the company’s two TV station Web sites; a staff of as many as 50 (a kingly number in these cut-to-the-bone days); and the leadership of Jim Brady, the former head of the Washington Post’s Web unit.
PaidContent’s David Kaplan has an interview up with Brady that offers a number of interesting and amusing takes on the business of Web news, from hyperlocal (“I’m kind of terrified of the term … I never know what that means anymore”) to the size of the operation (“You can’t take 10 people and create a local site as a business) and the search for a business model (“You have to be as aggressive on the business side in exploring new advertising opportunities as you are on the editorial side exploring new content strategies”).
What really interested me, though, was Brady’s comments about section fronts and home pages. Brady notes that the Guardian — where he’s just ending a post-Post stint as a consultant — recently shut down its Guardian America page. Brady notes that “a lot of us who have worked on the Web a long time believe that the section front has become an irrelevant part of the Web navigation scheme. You have a home page and you have articles, and 99 percent of your traffic is going to head to one of those two forms.” To Brady, it’s a better bet putting stories up on Twitter, Digg, Facebook and blogs than “posting them on a section front that’s getting no traffic anyway.” And, he adds, “you have to get away from the idea of getting people to simply come to your home page. You have to get your home page to the people.”
Brady is preaching to the choir on section pages, but I increasingly wonder about the value of home pages, too — at least in the form they take for most fair-sized news organizations. How important are they, really?
Home pages have long had two missions — one noble, the other not so much. The noble one is to gather relevant news at a glance, as print front pages have done for more than a century. But this mission is eroding. Increasingly, consumers either aggregate individual articles from a host of sources into their own “bundle” of news — which will always be preferable to a general-interest news site’s bundle — or else they find that their peers do it for them, a development whose ramifications for news organizations are only beginning to be understood. The now-famous college student who told a focus-group researcher that “if the news is that important, it will find me” wasn’t lazy or jaded, just describing the news ecosystem without the distraction of comparisons to how things used to be.
The more the news-at-a-glance mission of the home page erodes, the more we’ll be left with that other mission — which, unfortunately, is to be a corporate camel built by a committee of competing internal constituencies.
Yes, there’s a lot of news on your average home page. There are also features — ambassadors of the various section fronts fighting for promo space or taking their turn within a carousel. In too many cases there are also nods to video and/or community and/or topics, not as a natural part of the news but as entities in themselves. There’s search and data and ads. And then there’s a blizzard of links from various interests with the clout to get themselves on the home page — outmoded business units in their red-giant phase, reader-loyalty experiments, customer-service links for other media, nods to partners who have nothing to do with the news organization except be owned by the same people, irrelevant branding for corporate cousins, and so forth. It’s a dog’s breakfast of links that instantly blurs into noise for readers who’ve been trained by other lousy Web pages to zero ruthlessly in on signal.
None of this is anybody’s fault, really — home pages are notoriously difficult beasts for designers, editors and business people alike. But at this point, I think the home-page question isn’t so much how to reform them but how much they still matter. If readers are increasingly arriving through shared links or search or some other vehicle, the important thing is how they arrived, and how that context can be leveraged by the news organization. Followed a most-popular link? Here are enticing snippets of the other most-popular stories. Arrived through search? Here’s what else we have relevant to those search terms. Followed a friend’s link? Here’s what else your friends are reading.
There’s no longer a single bundle, but an ever-shifting succession of them — and those bundles are increasingly assembled not by an editor or a news organization, but by readers themselves. Is there a place for home pages in that world? I’m not sure there is.
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