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August 22 2012

20:13

Coming in the side door: The value of homepages is shifting from traffic-driver to brand

Moving on from newspapers, journalism industry soothsayers are now predicting the decline of something much younger: the homepage.

As with newspapers — which haven’t so much disappeared as been pushed off center stage — few are saying that homepages will disappear completely. But as more people enter news sites sideways — via search engines, links they see in emails, or via Facebook and Twitter — newsrooms are finding their homepages aren’t the starting points they once were. And the propulsive growth of mobile devices has accustomed news sites to presenting more than one face to the digital audience, through some mix of mobile-optimized sites, native apps, and responsive design. (You now have news outlets talking about their desktop sites almost as an afterthought to mobile-first development.)

(I’m willing to bet that you got to this very article through some non-homepage channel; less than 7 percent of visits to Nieman Lab start on our homepage.)

At the same time, traffic patterns seem quite divided between those who dive deep into social media and those who still head for news orgs’ front doors. Just 9 percent of Americans reported getting news through Facebook or Twitter “very often,” according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2012 State of the News Media Report.

Earlier this summer, we reached out to a number of news organizations to see what they’ve been seeing in recent months. Take The New York Times, for instance. In early 2011, the Times was typically seeing 50 to 60 percent of its visits come from people starting at the homepage of nytimes.com. More recently, that number had dropped a bit, with 48.6 percent of site visits starting there in March. Search engines drove 17.1 percent of traffic to the newspaper, and social is still just a blip: 3.1 percent of New York Times traffic came from Facebook, and 1 percent from Twitter.

But for brands that don’t have the history of the Times, the side door can be more important. At Buzzfeed, a whopping 37 percent of traffic comes from social networks and 17 percent from search, a spokeswoman told me. Of course, Buzzfeed makes virality a key tenet of news production — even if it means hooking readers with tacky celebrity photos and tags like “interspecies cuddling” — so it makes sense that social would be a significant part of how Buzzfeed distributes content. On the more muted side of the news, ProPublica tells me it gets “a lot more” traffic through search, social, and email than from direct-to-homepage visits.

Google’s Richard Gingras has argued that shifts in audience flow mean that we ought to be reconsidering “the very definition of a website,” and the possibility that it’s time to put “dramatically more focus on the story page” rather than the homepage. In a piece for Folio, Atlantic Digital editor Bob Cohn wrote that the homepage serves an important purpose as the “ultimate brand statement,” but isn’t nearly as important as a place to drive traffic.

In fact, a remarkable 88 percent of traffic to The Atlantic comes in sideways, meaning just 12 percent of site visits begin on the homepage. When I spoke with Cohn, he echoed Gingras on the importance of story pages, and said the homepage is a place to glean “the sensibility and the content areas of the site.”

“The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come.”

“The article page is now the principal way that people arrive at The Atlantic,” Cohn said. “The old mantra that every page needs to be a homepage has never been more true. People come for the article, and the goal is to give them a clean and interesting reading experience for the article — elegant, not too crowded, some art, a pull quote if the piece is long enough — and beyond that to make sure that we are giving the reader a sense of what else is on our site.”

Revisiting a series of questions Josh posed back in March 2011, I asked about a dozen news organizations for data detailing the following over the course of a recent 30-day period:

1. What percentage of your traffic comes from search engines?
2. What percentage of your traffic comes from facebook.com?
3. What percentage of your traffic comes from twitter.com?
4. What percentage of your site’s visits begin on your front page?

Only a handful gave me exact figures. But others were willing to speak generally about how traffic habits are changing, and what their organizations are (and should be) doing about it.

Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, says the shift away from the homepage is clear but that subscribers and non-subscribers frequent the homepage at different rates. (Narisetti broadly discussed traffic numbers in an interview, but The Wall Street Journal declined to provide specific percentages.)

“Sixty percent of our audience is not coming through the homepage, so already the majority is not experiencing the homepage,” Narisetti told me. “I’m more focused on the behavior of our subs versus our non-subs. Our subs come to the homepage in big numbers because they pay for it — they bookmark it. The non-subs tend to find out about our stories through other ways, so they come in sideways.”

He says social media traffic to the site accounts for anywhere from 6 to 10 percent. On the day after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, for example, social traffic was on the high end. (Narisetti attributes that spike in part to a Wall Street Journal Storify detailing Twitter reaction to the news.) But even as social grows, and people find their way to Journal stories without ever laying eyes on the homepage, Narisetti says it remains a critical area for editors to convey their news judgement.

“Ultimately, the curated aspect of the homepage brings people to big brands, right?” he said. “The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come. If they come sideways, can I get them to actually go to the homepage? That won’t happen if I diminish the value of homepage internally. I still need to make sure the homepage is engaging — just not get too hung up on people coming there first…It’s more of an engagement play than a front-door-audience play these days.”

“Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about, and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

Narisetti says the Wall Street Journal’s numbers are comparable with other big papers like The New York Times. His previous employer, The Washington Post, declined to share their traffic percentages. Its Beltway rival Politico would only provide wide ranges of traffic percentages. It said between 35 percent and 50 percent of its traffic begins at the homepage, for example. The Los Angeles Times was similarly cagey.

At a smaller outfit, ProPublica news apps editor Scott Klein, says publishing frequency affects readers’ traffic habits.

“ProPublica’s kind of the Galápagos Islands of news organizations,” he said. “We have very different species here. For most news websites, the homepage — because it changes so often throughout the news day and because so much of what they do is about what’s happening at this very moment — their homepages are where users tend to start. At ProPublica, we get a lot more traffic from social, search, links, and our email than we do through the homepage. But the homepage provides a crucial function, which is that it expresses the editor’s vision of the organization. And for somebody who doesn’t know who we are, it explains who we are, what we do, and how we do it.”

Klein said he wasn’t able to determine how many ProPublica readers start at the homepage, but that about 24 percent of traffic comes through search engines, 9 percent through Facebook and Twitter, and 8 percent via links in ProPublica’s email newsletters.

Everyone I interviewed agreed: The homepage can and should stay. But what needs to be done about story pages now that more and more readers are starting there? The Atlantic’s Cohn says one key is to bring in more photos and images.

“Less text and more visuals are going to help on most of our pages,” he said. “We’re not the text-heaviest site out there, but larger photos, better photos, more energetic ways of teasing other content. Headline fonts that convey the sensibility and the energy of the site. Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

So when’s the redesign? “Calling it a redesign is too formal, too print-like,” Cohn said. “We’re constantly tweaking.”

Note: Data is from a variety of periods, varying by news site, in the first half of 2012. ProPublica couldn’t provide traffic data related to visits that begin on the homepage.

We’d love to know about traffic patterns to your site. If you’re willing to share, please leave answers to our four questions in the comments section. For some more guidance, check out this earlier post.

July 01 2011

15:00

ProPublica’s newest news app uses education data to get more social

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a data set — the most comprehensive to date — documenting student access to advanced classes and special programs in U.S. public high schools. Shorthanded as the Civil Rights survey, the information tracks the access schools provide to their students for offerings, like Advanced Placement courses, gifted-and-talented programs, and higher-level math and science classes, that studies suggest are important factors for educational attainment — and for success later in life.

ProPublica reporters used the Ed data to produce a story package, “The Opportunity Gap,” that analyzes the OCR info and other federal education data; their analysis found that, overall and unsurprisingly, high-poverty schools are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to have students enrolled in those beneficial programs. The achievement gap, the data suggest, isn’t just about students’ educational attainment; it’s also about the educational opportunities provided to them in the first place. And it’s individual states that are making the policy decisions that affect the quality of those opportunities. ProPublica’s analysis, says senior editor Eric Umansky, is aimed at answering one key question: “Are states giving their kids a fair shake?”

The fact that the OCR data set is relatively comprehensive — reporting on districts with more than 3,000 students, it covers 85,000 schools, and around 75 percent of all public high schoolers in the U.S. — means that the OCR data set is also enormous. And while ProPublica’s text-based takes on the info have done precisely the thing you’d want them to do — find surprises, find trends, make it meaningful, make it human — the outfit’s reporters wanted to go beyond the database-to-narrative formula with the OCR trove. Their solution: a news app that encourages, even more than your typical app, public participation. And that looks to Facebook for social integration.

The app focuses on measuring equal access on a broad scale: It tracks not only the educational opportunities provided by each school, but also the percentage of teachers with two years’ experience or less — who, as a group, tend to effect smaller attainment gains than their more experienced counterparts — and the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of poverty. (More on the developers’ methodology here.)

ProPublica leads the field in developing news apps; each one requires careful thought about how users will actually navigate — and benefit from — the app. With this one, though, “we were focusing a lot more on what behaviors we wanted to encourage,” says Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. ProPublica thinks about how organize reporters, both within and outside of its newsroom, around its stories, notes Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting. “Here, we wanted to take it one step further.”

With that in mind, the app invites both macro and micro analysis, with an implicit focus on personal relevance: You can parse the data by state, or you can drill down to individual schools and districts — the high school you went to, or the one that’s in your neighborhood. And then, even more intriguingly, you can compare schools according to geographical proximity and/or the relative wealth and poverty of their student bodies. (Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, just down the street from the Lab, has 1,585 students, 38 percent of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch; Medfield Senior High, a few miles southwest of Cambridge, has 920 students and a 1-percent free/reduced lunch rate. Four percent of Rindge and Latin’s students are enrolled in advanced math courses; for Medfield High, the rate is 42 percent.) “It really is an auto-story generator,” Umansky says.

And sharing — the Facebook aspect of the app — is a big part of the behavior ProPublica’s news apps team wanted to encourage. They considered social integration from a structural perspective, notes Al Shaw, the developer who authored the app, and worked with Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager, to optimize the app-to-Facebook interface. One small-but-key feature: With that integration, users who are signed into Facebook can generate an individual URL for each cluster of data they dig up — the Rindge and Latin-versus-Medfield comparison, say — to make sharing and referencing the data almost seamless. The resulting page has a “share on Facebook” button along with a note: “Use this hashtag to share your insights on Twitter: #myschoolyourschool.”

The ed-data app isn’t social for its own sake; instead, it serves the broad and sometimes nebulous goal of having impact — on both a personal and a policy level. “We invest so much time into acquiring data and cleaning data and making sense of data,” Michel notes; ultimately, though, data doesn’t mean much unless people can understand how it immediately affects them, their communities, their kids. Its newest app, Michel says, is part of ProPublica’s broader strategy: to make data, overall, more social. (They’d like to do a similar integration with Twitter, too, she says.) The point is to find ways to marry social and story, to turn online interactions into their own kind of data sets so, she says, “people can layer their stories on top of them.”

June 30 2010

13:00

ProPublica’s website redesign puts “future of context” ideas to work

Late last night, ProPublica launched a redesign of its website. As most site revamps tend to be, the new propublica.org is sleeker, slicker, and generally more aesthetically pleasing than its previous incarnation. But it’s also more intuitively navigable than the previous version, incorporating the accumulated changes that the investigative outfit has learned about its users, its contributors, and its journalism in the past two-and-a-half years. As Scott Klein, the outlet’s editor of News Applications and the site revamp’s chief architect, puts it in his intro to the redesign:

When we first sat down to design our website in early 2008, we had just started as an organization, and we had yet to publish anything. We had only a skeleton staff. We had to create something of a Potemkin village website, guessing at the kinds of coverage we’d be doing and how we’d be presenting it. In the two years since, we’ve constantly tweaked the site, and have bolted on new features that we never imagined we’d be doing.

With this redesign, we’ve tried to take everything we’ve learned, and everything we’ve added, and put it together into one nice, clean site. Our hope is that the level of design sophistication now matches the sophistication of our reporting.

The revamp has been in the works, in earnest, basically since November, Klein told me — with many of the intervening months spent not in designing and coding, but in conversing: explaining to the designers the outlet hired to help with the overhaul (the San Francisco-based firm Mule) what ProPublica does and what it’s about. Before they could design ProPublica’s new website, Mule essentially “needed to get a Masters degree,” Klein says, in the organization itself.

It seems they did. Propublica.org now feels more mission-coherent than the original site. The “Donate” button is more prominent than on the previous — a not-so-subtle reminder that ProPublica, known as it is for the substantial funding it’s received from the Sandler Foundation, is always looking for more money, from more sources, to sustain its work. (Speaking of, scratch that: It’s “Donate” buttons that are prominent, three on the front page.)

The site has also added, in its “About Us” section, a list of FAQs — complete with (helpfully, delightfully) an audio-filled name-pronunciation guide: “Some pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica, some Pro-POOB-lica. Most folks here in the newsroom pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica. Of course we’re always happy to be mentioned, using any pronunciation.” (The ProPublica staff were inspired to write FAQs, senior editor Eric Umansky told me, by fellow-online-only-nonprofit Voice of San Diego — which posted its own FAQs last week.)

The new site tries to answer questions in the broader sense, too. In a recent episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the systemic challenges of the multi-level crowd: audiences — or users, or readers, or whatever term you prefer — who come into stories with differing amounts of prior knowledge, differing contextual appreciations, differing levels, essentially, of interest and information. One problem news organizations face — and it’s a design issue as much as a strictly editorial one — is how to engage and serve those different users through the same interface: the website.

The ProPublica redesign tries to address that issue by making consumption of the journalism its site contains a choose-your-own-adventure-type proposition. The revamped site, like its previous version, features, at the top of every page, a list of topics that have become focus areas of ProPublica investigations (currently, “Gulf Spill,” “New Orleans Cops,” “Loan Mods,” and six more). Now, though, the landing pages of those topic-based verticals (whose content is generally organized chronologically, river-of-news-style) also feature curated, interactive boxes that incorporate live data from ProPublica’s new applications. Check out the “Calif. Nurses” vertical, above — anchored by “Problem Nurses Remain on Job as Patients Suffer,” a finalist for this year’s Public Service Pulitzer. Scroll down past that top curated box, and there are further options for self-navigation: Users can filter stories according to their general significance (the “Major Stories Only” button), their personal significance (the “Unread Stories Only” button), their author, or their age.

The idea was to give users several paths into, and among, stories and topics, Klein explains. It’s a kind Google’s Living Stories experiment was an inspiration in that respect, he says, as was the filter-focused layout of the website of Washington’s Spokesman-Review. The changes are about making the site a personal, and even somewhat personalized, place — and about making it accessible to new users while still compelling for the old.

March 31 2010

20:46

Hey, journos: ProPublica wants to find you a find, catch you a catch

ProPublica: investigative news outlet, public-interest advocate, matchmaker.

No, seriously. If you’re a journalist, and you cover the economy — in particular, the federal mortgage modification program intended to assist struggling homeowners — then the nonprofit outfit wants to connect you to potential sources.

“Allow us to make an introduction: homeowners, local journalists,” Paul Kiel and Amanda Michel write in a post just launched on ProPublica’s website. “Local journalists, homeowners. We’d like to set you up.”

Since last May, nearly 800 struggling homeowners from all over the country have shared their stories with ProPublica about their efforts to get a loan modification through the federal program. Their stories have driven our coverage – dozens of stories. With their help, we showed the incredible delays and frustrations applicants typically face: mortgage servicers have repeatedly lost documents, misinformed homeowners, and denied modifications for reasons that run contrary to the program’s guidelines. Among the 1.1 million homeowners who’ve begun the program’s trial stage, which is supposed to last three months, hundreds of thousands have waited in limbo for six months or more.

We have no doubt that there are many more important stories to be told. By any account, millions of homeowners are facing possible foreclosure. Although we read every homeowner’s story, we can only use a fraction in our coverage. That’s why we’re offering to set up our readers with local journalists (with the homeowner’s permission, of course). Often, the media can be the most effective recourse for homeowners who have nowhere else to turn.

We talk about disintermediation; this is, in its way, reintermediation. Reporting Matchmaker, part of ProPublica’s “Eye on Loan Modifications” coverage, brings together struggling homeowners — it asks them to share their stories, and (confidentially) their contact information — and local reporters who might want to tell their stories. (“Struggling homeowners, share your stories with us,” the service asks; “journalists, sign up here and we’ll put you in contact with struggling homeowners in your area who want to talk with local journalists.”) And then it maps everyone, homeowners and journalists together, to determine local matchups.

The service is of a piece with the outlet’s other efforts in collaboration: its Reporting Recipe, its Stimulus Spot Check, and so on. It’s another twist on what we tend to think of when we imagine the ways journalism can effect change: Essentially, ProPublica is amplifying its impact through helping other outlets to have impact.

“Collaboration is very much a part of our DNA,” Michel told me. “We’re always looking for ways to effect change by sharing resources.” And with Reporting Matchmaker, they’re doing that by sharing not only resources, but also, simply, sources.

The idea for the project came from Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. Klein remembers listening to a Planet Money episode on loan modifications last fall: “They were trying to do stories about people with loan mod problems,” he told me, “and they would call — and the loans would be approved, suddenly.” Kiel was finding the same thing in his ProPublica work: Curiosity, when it comes from a reporter, can be a powerful weapon. So they figured: If all it takes to get reticent loan officers moving is a call from a curious reporter — “if that’s all it takes for this to get a fair hearing,” Klein says — then why not amplify reporters’ ability to make those calls?

“I’ve used the network to do a lot of stories,” Kiel says: “looking for patterns, being able to drum up half a dozen cases when I identify a problem — that’s what it’s been useful for.” Now, though, it’s “a resource that can be leveraged beyond our use of it.”

One of the powers of the web, Jay Rosen argues, is that it allows people who were formerly separate — geographically, and thus experientially — to find each other and converse with each other. He calls this “audience atomization overcome”; essentially, it’s community that transcends geography. Reporting Matchmaker is one more way — a highly systematized, efficient way — to bring people together.

Whether they’ll want to be brought together is an open question; collaboration can sometimes be more appealing in theory than in practice. Still, what reporter would decline an offer of assistance in finding story sources? Kiel points to a recent Good Morning America segment that profiled a couple trying to modify their loan — and getting rebuffed, repeatedly, by Chase bank. It was Kiel, using the ProPublica database, who put the show in touch with the couple — at the show’s request. And only thirty minutes after the Reporting Recipe post went live this afternoon, Michel points out, she and Kiel had already received twenty-five match-up requests from journalists. Middlemen aren’t always redundant; and Reporting Matchmaker may well prove that sometimes even the media can benefit from some mediating.

14:00

Collaboration’s power: ProPublica’s healthcare bill viewer

That very cool, side-by-side comparison of the Senate and House health care bills ProPublica launched before the health care reconciliation vote? It came about over coffee.

Jeff Larson, the outfit’s news applications developer, and Olga Pierce, its health reporter, were taking a break from the proceedings at this year’s NICAR conference earlier this month in Phoenix. They began chatting about what ProPublica might do to help people make sense of the House reconciliation version of the Senate bill passed late last year.

“I had this Platonic idea in my head for diffed versions of the documents,” Larson says; and he and Pierce, over their coffee, realized that the reconciliation — which was, at the time, imminent — created the need for a tool that would both leverage and enable textual comparison. They ran the idea for a side-by-side bill viewer by Scott Klein, ProPublica’s news applications editor, and Klein green-lighted the tool. Building the tool in time for Sunday’s vote would require a less-than-two-day turnaround — a challenge made more acute by the fact that the reconciliation version released by the House wasn’t a new version at all, but rather “a 150-page list of amendments to the Senate bill (’strike paragraph 4,’ ‘insert this new sentence in paragraph B…’).” So “it was one of those moments when it was like, ‘Okay, it’s go time,’” Pierce says.

They returned to ProPublica offices on Thursday and set to work: Larson, coding the infrastructure that would enable side-by-side document viewing; Pierce, entering the changes in the reconciliation markup — one by one, manually, via cut-and-paste. She worked until 6 a.m. on Friday (“it was an exercise in Zen, basically,” she says); later that morning, the team added reinforcements to help her wrap up the job. By Friday afternoon, the comparison tool was live, and being linked, and raking in kudos from around the web:

Which would simply be a nice little vignette — an Engine That Could story, with a startuppy twist — except that it also offers a nice little lesson. Because it wasn’t just ingenuity and industry that led to the quick creation of a very useful tool; it was also, even more importantly, interactivity. Pierce and Larson, who sit just feet away from each other in the ProPublica newsroom, regularly converse about new applications that will make the most of the data Pierce gathers and employs in her work. “I can just stroll over and be like, ‘Okay, I have this idea…’” she says. (“And then Jeff goes like this,” she adds, putting her head in her hands.)

They laugh, but they also see the value in that kind of casual conversation — particularly now, as reporting and coding become increasingly mutualized. “In other places, I would be on an entirely different floor than Olga, or maybe even in a different building,” Larson says. “And we just never would interface and come up with these ideas.” ProPublica’s newsroom, though — a large spread on the 23rd floor of a lower-Manhattan high-rise, with everyone save for the top editors and a few business-side staffers sharing cube space in an open layout — encourages interaction and idea-sharing. Among all staff, but in particular between the tech side and the editorial: two groups that are all too often separated in newsrooms, not just rhetorically, but geographically. Too often, Larson says, “there’s kind of a Chinese wall.” But a good layout can make all the difference; and that’s just as true for newsrooms as it is for the news itself.

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