Teaching Examples

Is the home page worthless?
June 2, 2007, 3:53 pm
Filed under: future, journalism, newspapers, online

Maybe you look at your local newspaper’s home page. But then, maybe you are a newspaper journalist. Go ask someone else if they look at your newspaper’s home page. You definitely ought to ask my 18- to 24-year-old students if THEY ever look at your newspaper’s home page.

Several people have written about this recently. Jeff Jarvis hit it big-time on Tuesday (After the Page), but in a sense, several subsequent posts he has made are very much about the same topic. You might not think so at first: He wrote about CBS’s acquisition of Last.fm (my students have been all over Last.fm for at least three years already, by the way); he wrote that “GoogleNews is our newsstand and newspaper truck and billboard” because it sends people to news sites; he wrote about Facebook, which college students check almost as often as they look at their cell phones; he wrote about Google’s acquisition of FeedBurner, which has made RSS so easy, even a newspaperman can do it.

No, I’m not trying to drive you over to Jarvis’s site, BuzzMachine. I’m trying to point out that all these topics connect to the value of the home page — which might be lower than you imagine.

Journalist Jillian Burt took these ideas out on a long and delightful spin earlier today (or tomorrow, in fact, because she’s in Australia and it’s already June 3 there):

The first thing I read every day, over my first coffee of the day, is the Australian Associated Press newsfeeds on the home section of my Australian e-mail account, after I’ve logged in. I’ve expanded that to include RSS feeds of local news from the various Australian states. In fact the news reports on agriculture and food production in Australia I’ve been writing … [were] in response to newswire stories I was reading every time I’d open up my e-mail.

The first thing I read every day is the custom Google front I’ve configured to show me the BBC News headlines, my local daily’s RSS, The Washington Post, Techmeme, GoogleNews, and Tailrank. As an added bonus, my Gmail appears there too.

Are News Home Pages Over?

I’ve come to realize that I rarely look at any news site’s home page.

This is not to say I think the majority of people are like me. But surely I am not unusual in my newsreading habits — I know I’m not, because I meet many people who approach the news the same way. Like Jillian Burt, I read my news feeds as I sip my first coffee of the day.

Steve Yelvington wrote yesterday that the physical act of reading a newspaper is not always about getting informed:

If you read a newspaper while eating lunch, you can entertain yourself while feeding yourself. Or perhaps you’re using it to avoid people you really don’t want to talk with. Or escape the uncomfortable feeling that you’re dining alone in a crowded restaurant. Or whatever.

His point is that when most of us have an iPhone — or a similar Internet-always-on device with a lucious, readable screen — we will be able to meet those needs by sticking our face in the device, instead of into a newspaper. We may never buy another magazine in the airport … oh, yeah, we still can’t be online while in the air, darn it.

So even now, many people are relying not on your home page but rather on their own personal collections, aggregations, compilations.

And in the future, when people’s eyeballs are fixed on those little portable devices for all their information gathering, time wasting, and entertainment needs, I would be willing to bet that your home page is absolutely NOT a destination for them.

The question is: What are you doing about it? How are you preparing for this?

New York Times Getting Ready

Jillian Burt wrote about a brand-new service from the Times:

This afternoon I spent an hour or so configuring my ‘My Times’ page at the New York Times, after receiving this e-mail this morning, an invitation for me to ‘personalise’ NYTimes.com, “with guidance (if you want it) from Times reporters and editors. If you’ve already tried My Times, you’ll find a lot of improvements. The response is much faster. You can now create multiple My Times pages, to group your sources by category or interest. The search results have been improved. And there are new widgets that let you add weather, New York Times crosswords, local movie show times, Flickr photos and other information to your page.”

It’s essentially the same as My Yahoo!, a collecting of news feeds. My Times allows for story summaries, and there’s a more diverse and unusual set of feeds to choose from, picked by New York Times correspondents (not the ones that I read, however, and whose reading material I would have been interested in bookmarking).

Now, I don’t know why Burt is so lucky — when I go to my.nytimes.com, all I get is: “My Times is currently in development. Subscribe to the notification list and we’ll let you know as soon as it’s available.” But I’m certainly intrigued by what Burt wrote.

Again, I ask — if you work for a news organization: What are you doing about this? Are you ready?

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7 Comments so far
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I remember a conversation I had with the projects editor at my paper the day I came for my interview.

We talked a lot about how it would make more sense if newspaper Web sites were built more like a Google homepage. You know, I can pick the local news headlines, the photo galleries and the business section. But since I’m less keen on the sports and the entertainment, I could leave them off instead of having them vie for my attention at the top of the screen.

It would make sense. At least to me. I think that’s what’s so awesome about My Times. I can get the Washington Post, Slate and the BBC and more. I can see the top headlines from each of them and the AP and Reuters and Yahoo. All in one place. I keep my Google homepage open all day at work because I can get much of this through RSS feeds. But this site is pretty awesome.

Somehow, I also was chosen to be a beta user because I got an e-mail Friday inviting me to personalize my page. It said at the end of the e-mail that I signed up to be notified when this service launched. I had forgotten about it (but not my dream of the Google-like newspaper homepage), so I jumped at the chance. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Comment by Meranda

An old friend of mine Emily Bell, who runs Guardian Unlimited’s websites, expounds on the dangers of getting too far ahead of the “old-school” web audience here…


She says: “The problem is that there is a mature audience on the web which is used to websites that work in one way and a new audience which expects them to work in another. The latter are the audience which Jarvis identifies, the former are those who threw an invigorating quantity of cyber-tomatoes in my direction last week.”

It may be an increasing problem that we not have to present information in an increasing variety of ways, but that an increasing number of people will hate one or other of them. Which is quite old world…


Comment by Inksniffer

Apropos of Inksniffer’s excellent observation, Meranda wrote (in March) about an annoyed reader who phoned to object to the whole idea of having the newspaper online: “I’m 70 … I’m not interested in whatever.com.”

Meranda: I feel left out!

Comment by Mindy McAdams

Something that a lot of web designers get that newspapers tend to miss:

The article page is where readers spend their time, and the article page is where readers land when they come from search engines, blogs, or feeds.

We should be designing news sites inside-out, starting with the article page and spending time on things like typography and database connections to related and popular stories.

Instead, we often invest most of our design and development time on the homepage, trying too hard to be a portal instead of a collection of articles.

Comment by Ryan

Search engine optimization is a key part of all this, perhaps even more important than customized portals. SEO in its most base form is about working *with* search engines. By default, SEO’d articles also work well with RSS readers and any other personalization/portal product. Efforts should be made to train writers/editors the basics of Web-based headline writing, decks, inverted pyramid, etc.

Comment by Mac Slocum

I’m astonished, and ridiculously grateful, to have found a community of journalists grappling with the same ideas I am. Thank you for finding me, and linking to my post.

Newspapers in Australia are suffering the same business woes as newspapers everywhere, and responding by firing editors and sub-editors, garnishing news with celebrity gossip, and creating tons of new, glossy ‘lifestyle’ magazine inserts. It’s painful to hear people say “Oh, I never read the paper any more” but I can see why they wouldn’t, especially when, every now and then, a piece of spectacular reporting is done, and goes unheralded.

I’m excited about online journalism and feel that we’ve reached a point with the audience’s familiarity with the internet itself, that we can match a journalist’s traditional strengths of curiosity, direct connections with people, verification, and skills of observation with ways of expanding a story, and making it more complex. Internet reports can be something to stay with and reflect on now, not just headline grabs and soundbites.

I feel very much alone in Australia. In the last few months I’ve made an effort to look for freelance work (the rates are shockingly low now) but I don’t fit easily into the narrowed confines of the papers I used to write for. It’s depressing to be told by an editor that I have to put bullet point business strategies into a technology story: “what are the five general points anyone can take away with them and apply to their own business?” I feel like I’m being asked to pre-digest news for people, and my experience is that readers are much smarter than advertising demographics want them to be. Jillian Burt

Comment by Yamazaki's Notebook

On the flip side, there’s some evidence — and I apologize for not being able to recall exactly where to find it — that a lot of readers don’t actually bother to customize a customizable page.

That floored me. I had test-driven every personalized page around. (Anyone remember My Lycos?)

I still prefer My Yahoo, even after testing iGoogle. But I’m not completely anti-Google — I rely on Google Reader for my blogging needs, and that means I haven’t seen the home page of many of my favorite feeds in ages.

But I still enjoy looking at home pages. I consider it a treat when I get to spend time with a lively home page. So much more personal than a bunch of feeds.

So for me, my readers are the equivalent of a trip through the drive-thru. A good home page is the equivalent of a home-cooked meal. I’d like to see more of the latter, but in these hectic days, I’m more likely to use the former.

Comment by bdure

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