Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Revenge of the Home Page

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Nilay Patel, the editor-in-chief of the digital technology publication The Verge, has lately taken to describing theverge.com as “the last Web site on earth.” It’s kind of a joke—there are, of course, tons of Web sites still in existence, including the likes of Facebook.com—but also kind of not a joke. For much of the past decade, publications’ home pages were rarely the focus of attention; journalistic outlets relied on social media to distribute what they published. The Verge is an outlier in that it invested heavily in its home page when it was out of fashion to do so. In 2022, it launched a dramatic redesign that was meant to make its site a more dynamic destination; it included a “Storystream” of short posts and visual highlights, similar to tweets, that provide dozens of updates a day in real time. The new Verge looked less like a traditional publication and more like a social-network feed, which initially struck many industry observers as ludicrous. Why bother trying to do what the social platforms already do better? The home page was dead. TikTok was the future.

“The immediate reaction was ‘This is doomed to fail, no one will ever go to a home page again,’ ” Patel recalled. Then Twitter imploded under the leadership of Elon Musk, and all of the major social platforms pivoted away from news distribution. In the end, The Verge’s redesign worked. According to the company, the number of “loyal users” (defined as those who have five or more sessions on the site in a calendar month) increased by forty-seven per cent in the course of 2023. Though it is not a general-interest title, The Verge continues to be the most visited single site under the umbrella of Vox Media, its parent company. One could argue that its makeover, which has now become a subject of admiring chatter among media executives and the editors who work for them, heralds the revenge of the home page.

The major social platforms operated for a long time like digital big-box stores for media content, offering a little of everything all at once. Twitter, especially, served as a one-stop shop for news and entertainment among a certain kind of very online user. In the twenty-tens, the conventional wisdom was that content was best distributed to consumers by social platforms through algorithmically personalized recommendations. You read whatever news surfaced in your Facebook or Twitter feeds. News articles circulated as individual URLs, floating in the ether of social-media feeds, divorced from their original publishers. With rare exceptions, home pages were reduced to the role of brand billboards; you might check them out in passing, but they weren’t where the action lay.

Now digital-distribution infrastructure is crumbling, having become both ineffective for publishers and alienating for users. Social networks, already lackluster sources for news, are overwhelmed by misinformation and content generated by artificial intelligence. A.I.-driven search threatens to upend how articles get traffic from Google. Text-based media have given way to short-form videos of talking heads hosted on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube. If that’s not how you prefer to take in information, you’re out of luck. Surrounded by dreck, the digital citizen is discovering that the best way to find what she used to get from social platforms is to type a URL into a browser bar and visit an individual site. Many of those sites, meanwhile, have worked hard to make themselves feel a bit more like social media, with constant updates, grabby visual stimuli, and a sense of social interaction. Patel told me, “What we needed to do was steal moves from the platforms.”

Perhaps the platform era caused us to lose track of what a Web site was for. The good ones are places you might turn to several times per day or per week for a select batch of content that pointedly is not everything. Going there regularly is a signal of intention and loyalty: instead of passively waiting for social feeds to serve you what to read, you can seek out reading materials—or videos or audio—from sources you trust. If Twitter was once a sprawling Home Depot of content, going to specific sites is more like shopping from a series of specialized boutiques.

Semafor, a global news publication that launched in late 2022, originally focussed on publishing e-mail newsletters. The rise of the newsletter was another strategy for building loyal audiences without relying on social media: rather than try to get readers to visit your Web site, you deliver your content straight to their in-boxes. But over time Semafor’s site has become more important. “It actually felt like a slightly counterintuitive choice to say, ‘We’re going to invest in building a Web page,’ ” Ben Smith, the co-founder of Semafor, told me. Smith was the long-running editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, a publication built to distribute content through social media. “We were convinced that home pages were dead. In fact, they were just resting,” he said. (The New Yorker launched a redesigned home page in late 2023, having reached a similar conclusion.)

Smith sees Semafor’s site as a way to compete with social media as a real-time aggregator of information, a role that publications largely ceded in the twenty-tens. Semafor’s features include a Global Elections Hub that ranks political races around the world according to their urgency, and a function called Signals, which uses A.I. translation to help Semafor journalists search for and summarize articles from international publications. The goal is to give readers a breadth of stories and opinions at a glance. “There was a period that Twitter did that job very well,” Smith said. “It was a place where you could find diverging good-faith arguments about shared facts. Social media has stopped doing that.” He added, ”People are interested in things that are curated by humans.”

In recent weeks, I’ve been asking people which URLs they regularly type into their browsers these days. Some listed sports sites such as ESPN.com or theathletic.com to check for scores; others pointed to the Times’ games hub, nytimes.com/crosswords. (Of course, the Times’ main home page, nytimes.com, is the rare example of a media URL that has been a steady traffic colossus.) Several respondents listed Defector, a publication that was launched in 2020 by former writers of Deadspin, a sports blog under the now defunct Gawker Media umbrella. Defector is profitable, with the vast majority of its revenue coming from paid subscriptions. Jasper Wang, its head of revenue and operations, told me that the vision for Defector was “a hangout blog in the tradition of the old Gawker sites”—in other words, a place you might check on multiple times a day. “We never thought of Twitter or Facebook or Google as the core of the machine; for us, the site itself was the core of the machine,” Wang said. Defector’s home page is simple but effective, displaying the publication’s personality through its chatty headlines and its gang of regular bylines rather than through flashy design features. Other home-page modules highlight subscriber comments and upcoming digital live events, including Twitch streams. According to Defector’s data, seventy-five per cent of all paid subscribers’ visits to the site start with the home page. Cultivating that habit is also key to the site’s business model: the more times in a month a subscriber comes to the site, the more likely she is to retain her subscription in the following month.

However dynamic or sociable they become, Web-site home pages will continue to reckon with the structural problems of the social Internet. Facebook still works to track its users around the Internet, and uses the data to target them with advertising. Readers often log on to publications like the Times with their Gmail accounts, further entrenching Google as a Internet gatekeeper. Consumers’ attention is still largely dictated by algorithmic feeds, and TikTok continues to provide the best opportunity to draw new eyeballs, at least until it gets banned by the United States government. Individual sites trying to replicate the dynamism of social platforms must reckon with the fact that they are doing so at a far smaller scale. Loyal audiences are pointedly not everyone; there is a limit to how much revenue can be juiced from them. Moving away from the traffic firehose of the wider Internet seems counterintuitive, in that sense, but it may be the only viable option left.

One welcome lesson of the post-platform Internet is that sticking to what you’re good at might be a better strategy in the long run than trying to make content that’s popular. Another site that many people told me they frequented was Arts & Letters Daily, which is known for one thing: each day, it posts three links to literary-world stories published elsewhere, accompanied by short teasers—like tweets that predated Twitter. Arts & Letters Daily was founded in 1998, and its design has not changed since. The site was a sensation of the early Internet; it was acquired by the academic magazine Lingua Franca in 1999, and after Lingua Franca shut down, in 2002, was rescued by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The managing editor of the Chronicle, Evan Goldstein, who also runs Arts & Letters, described its curatorial ambit as “slightly gossipy forms of intellectual warfare.” For a time in the twenty-tens, when curation seemed like the purview of social-media platforms, Arts & Letters’ simple aggregative format seemed hopelessly dated. Yet, it continued doing what it does, and now its approach is so vintage that it looks fresh. “The algorithmic unsettling of Twitter has opened up new possibilities for old formats like ours,” Goldstein said. The longevity of Arts & Letters Daily hints at the possibility that giant social platforms may ultimately seem like an aberration in the history of digital journalism. Goldstein told me, “If you stay put long enough, everything returns.” For all the publications that spent years scrambling for clicks far afield, it may be time to turn inward, for a home-page renovation. ♦



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