Getting to grips with the speed of change brought about by the digital revolution is rarely easy for the news editors at the head of an industry that remained fundamentally unchanged and stable until relatively recently.
Take, for example, the case of news website homepages.
When the rise of the Internet demanded that newspapers engage with their readers through online editions, editors responded (some faster than others) with websites built around homepages that acted as a constantly updated front page. However, the digital world is characterised by relentless advancement and development, meaning that online news strategies frequently become out-dated.
Only a little over year ago the Pew Research Center issued its "Navigating News Online" report, in which the importance of the homepage came under scrutiny. Although users were increasingly finding their way directly to news articles through social media, the data amassed by the report suggested that “the front page of a Website is vital.” For 21 of the 25 news sites taken into account by the Center’s research, the homepage was the most viewed part of the site: at Reuters.com, the homepage attracted 79 percent of all traffic, and 69 percent at news.google.com.
Less than 18 months later, all that has changed. Internet users are now more likely to access news sites through “side doors”: search engines, Facebook and Twitter links, and links found in email newsletters. According to Nieman Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance, “the shift away from the homepage is clear even for well-known brands like the WSJ. Meanwhile The Atlantic now sees 88 percent of its traffic enter the site “sideways,” with more readers bypassing the homepage and heading straight to articles.
There are clear signs that the industry is responding to the phenomenon. Indeed, Google’s Richard Gingras has argued that “we need to rethink every facet of the journalism model in light of the dramatic changes in the architecture of the news ecosystem” and homepages are increasingly being used as a platform to reflect the editorial values of the whole site. Nonetheless, it is questionable as to what extent “brand pages” will engage those readers who follow the news and not a particular news title.
As things stand, news organisations would be well advised to focus their efforts not just on meeting digital challenges, but on anticipating them. Whilst the changing role of homepages is far from the biggest threat to online news sites, the ponderous reaction provoked by this development is indicative the way in which the mutation of online trends is generally handled.
The news media is becoming ever more adept at reacting to emerging trends, but is frequently failing to anticipate them. Writing on his blog about the news industry’s inability to truly capitalise on the opportunities offered by smartphones, Alan D. Mutter concludes: “Unless something changes incredibly fast, newspapers will miss the next big thing in media.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Forbes’ Lewis Dvorkin, who has reproached many of his fellow journalists and editors for their inability to move “the discussion [about the role of article and homepages] beyond safe, conventional thinking.” Yet even Forbes’s digital guru is willing to admit that the business title has still not found an effective method of generating income from an increasingly overlooked section of its site.
Dvorkin is confident the solution to this particular problem will be found “because the opportunities are so great” but that time will be needed for tests and reflection. In the meantime, a host of new (often exciting) digital challenges will be demanding the attention of editors.