For all of the upheaval and turmoil that the internet has created in the media industry, and the explosion of new formats and birth of new companies like BuzzFeed and Vox and First Look Media, there are some things that have remained almost impervious to change, and one of those is the “homepage.” Even some digital-only news sites have opted for something not that far removed from the traditional newspaper or magazine homepage, with a curated selection of stories chosen by editors, or a chronological blog style.
Is that really the best we can do? Melody Kramer doesn’t think it is — or at least she would like people to think a little more outside the box, as it were. A former digital strategist at National Public Radio, she developed a devoted following via the Social Media Desk blog she set up for NPR on Tumblr and has since left for a job with a federal government skunkworks called 18F (she also has a newsletter in which collects all sorts of fascinating things).
In a recent post on Medium, entitled “64 Ways to Think About a News Homepage,” Kramer enlisted a number of friends, many of whom have nothing to do with the news business (which in itself is kind of an extension of a recurring feature she does, called “How Do You Get Your News?,” in which she interviews people from outside the news industry about how they get their news). And each suggestion is illustrated with what appears to be the actual hand-written or hand-drawn version of that idea.
The result is fairly crude, like someone videotaped a whiteboard session over a few beers with some smart friends. But for me at least, the value isn’t in any one single idea — since there is no “silver bullet” answer to what a homepage should be — but more in the approach itself, which tries to forget everything we knew about a news homepage and come up with better or different ideas about how we could organize information. Here are some of the themes that jumped out at me when I read the post:
Customization: One concept that connects many of the ideas in Kramer’s post is personalization. So, for example, one idea is to turn a news homepage into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of story, in which readers choose which threads to follow and the story is ultimately constructed by them through those choices; another idea sees the homepage as a “treasure map” that lets readers pick different spots to dig or drill down into a topic; and a third lets readers choose how much time they have and how much they want to know about a story, and then tries to deliver that.
Other views: Some of the ideas Kramer’s group mentioned are clearly an attempt to get out of the so-called “filter bubble,” in which we spend too much time focused on topics or stories that are already of interest to our social network. So one proposal is for a homepage that allows a reader to see the news through someone else’s eyes; another would show news that was read or shared by people far away from the user; and a third proposes that the homepage be set up to show news that surprises the reader (although it’s not clear how it would do that, unless it knew you very well).
More depth: A number of the ideas in the list seemed to be oriented around the kind of market that Vox was set up to serve — namely, a market of readers looking for more depth and context and background for the stories that are flowing past them all the time. So one idea would have a homepage where each story came with links to background articles, stories on a similar topic, etc. (probably the closest to a traditional news-site approach), while another would have each story include links to the sources the reporter used to put the story together, and background articles he or she used.
Some of the ideas suggested by Kramer’s group, like the one that recommends background links for each piece — or the one that would allow users to zoom in and out to see the broader context for an issue-based story — are at least close to what traditional digital and print news outlets are doing, or trying to do. But some are refreshingly bizarre, like the one that suggests a homepage where the selection of news is driven by some action the reader takes, like a “spin the wheel” kind of approach; or the one where news reading becomes a game and if you don’t win then you lose your “life” and have to come back later.
Many of these are unworkable, or ill-advised, or just plain loony — but what I admire about them is that they are trying to rethink what it means to even have a homepage at all. Why do we do it the way we do? What is good and bad about that? Kramer also mentions some existing sites that are trying to do this in one way or another: so, for example, Quartz’s homepage is basically its email newsletter of headlines, and Mashable’s homepage is entirely driven by algorithms.
Reading through Kramer’s post, I couldn’t help but think about when I worked at a newspaper and was on a task force devoted to rethinking the home page: I suggested that the site have three home pages — one where it showed you what stories the editors thought were important, one where it showed you stories that the site knew you might be interested in (based on its knowledge of your behavior) and one where you could see what other readers liked, based on what they clicked on or shared or commented on.
At this point, we have plenty of sites that give us the first of those, some that try to give you the second now and then — and social media has more or less taken care of the third one, although it is still too cumbersome for many people to use regularly as a news-discovery engine. Even after a decade and a half online, media outlets still have a long way to go before they really reinvent themselves.