the new york times
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Social media has largely become the shop window for consuming news, bringing in most traffic alongside search engines.

But does this mean publishers should no longer invest in redesigning their homepage? This article is the third in a series looking at how news organisations are now approaching the homepage, after it was pronounced dead by many in 2014. Check out the first two instalments, about the strategy at the Guardian and Quartz


When The New York Times Innovation Report was leaked two years ago, one of the elements that stood out about the outlet's digital strategy was that traffic to the homepage had fell by half since 2011, to some 80 million visitors in 2013.

The internal review also highlighted a similar situation for the website's section fronts and the NYT's mobile apps, as more readers were accessing stories from social media. So how does the organisation think of the homepage now?

"We still believe that the homepage plays a very prominent role for us," Clifford Levy, assistant masthead editor at The New York Times, who oversees the title's digital platforms, told Journalism.co.uk.

"It really is a symbol of who we are in the digital news ecosystem," he added.

Levy said the curation of the homepage is done "around the clock" by an assigned editor, who works closely with digital editors at the paper to decide which stories to showcase and how they should be presented.

"When there's a major breaking news event, whether it's the Paris attacks or the San Bernardino shooting in California, we get a flood of readers who come to our homepage directly."

The design of the nytimes.com homepage is still a more traditional one, with a clean format focused more on text and headlines than multimedia elements.

Breaking news stories are clustered in a column on the left of the page and include the headline and a short summary of the events.

As readers scroll down, the homepage tends to feature photographs in smaller sizes, before leading into a middle section that highlights Times Video output.

Levy said including more visual elements is something they are currently working on, hoping to "roll out changes in the coming months", as well as more personalisation features for readers.

At the moment, the only option available is switching between the US and the international homepage on the site.

Digital identity

These changes would draw on lessons the team has learned over the last two years from experimenting with images and graphics on mobile, both within the main NYT app and NYT Now, because "we still have an incredibly robust amount of traffic coming to us directly from nytimes.com".

The outlet passed one million digital-only subscribers in July, in addition to its 1.1 million print subscribers who also receive digital access.

"We're trying to create a sensibility for The New York Times that is native to digital," he explained.

"We obviously have a real understanding of what the NYT is in print, but our real challenge everyday is to come in and say 'ok, who are we on digital?' and the homepage, to some extent, is that presentation of the NYT to the world."

Levy said curating the homepage is "not a stagnant process" and the editors are "constantly looking for signals from our readers about what they find engaging or not", whether that's featuring a particular story higher up on the page or framing it differently.

The New York Times uses Chartbeat's Heads Up Display, a feature of the analytics platform that tracks direct traffic to the homepage and ranks the stories on it according to popularity, excluding side-door clicks from social and search.

"It's important that we have a better understanding of what interests readers and not only in terms of topics, but also in different parts of the country or at certain times during the day."

By allocating a central slot on the homepage to its daily briefings – a morning version published between 6am and noon ET, and an evening round-up that stays on the site roughly between 6pm and 3am ET – the NYT aims to "create a sense of habituation on the homepage".

Levy said the briefing is "one of our most popular features", which originated on the NYT Now app and has since become a staple of the outlet's digital presence across all platforms.

"People know they can always come to it and this is another example of how we are always thinking about 'what is the native expression of the NYT on digital', as opposed to 'what is the print expression of the NYT on digital'."

For new readers and the audience that comes to the website through Facebook, Twitter, or search engines, Levy said their philosophy is to "get people to do one more thing", whether that's subscribing to a newsletter, reading another story or going back to the homepage.

"If we can do that, then we can start building up a more robust engagement and, hopefully, get them to come back to us the next day or the next week."

The mobile homepage

Last June, Levy headed an experiment that consisted of blocking employees' access to the desktop homepage for a week, in a bid to encourage everyone in the newsroom to write and publish stories with their mobile audience in mind.

"Reporters, writers and editors would put together a story on desktop, it would get published and it would look great, but they were not necessarily always checking to see how it looked on mobile," he said.


Before a story is published on nytimes.com, the journalist can see what it would look like on desktop, and the outlet's CMS also includes a mobile web preview. But for one week, Levy and his colleagues had to physically pull out their phones or tablets to access the website.

"It's not only a different screen size, it's also the idea that when you sit down to read a story on desktop that's one thing.

"But when you're on your phone, you may be waiting in line at the coffee shop for five minutes, or running for the subway, or you may be giving your kids breakfast as you quickly get 30 seconds to look at the news."

Levy said that while the experiment didn't "wildly change things, it helped", and the fact that it received support from the organisation's executives and publisher had a symbolic importance for the 164 year-old newspaper.

Feedback from the newsroom was also positive, he added. One editor approached him to explain how being forced to look at his section front on mobile made him realise that while six stories on the same topic might look good on desktop, the same format is "just too much" on a phone.

"It's an entirely different experience on mobile and we need to be increasingly sensitive to that, increasingly thinking about how our journalism is being read, watched or listened to and how it is different to what we're accustomed to.

"Even today, we're still writing and editing on desktop, so everyday we have to remind ourselves and our colleagues, 'you've got to keep looking at the phone'".

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