You remember the fight for the home page in the '90s? The home page was all -- "owning" the reader was news and media companies' intent. In addition, to various presentation strategies intended to increase "stickiness" (is there an online museum of over-used web buzzwords that have had short half-lives?), publishers frantically offered "make this my home page" buttons and gave awkward tutorials to uncertain newbies about how to change their "preferences."
Long story short, we know Google became many people's home page; to an extent it has become the web starter kit. Search and go. In harnessing paid search, it's made that model work, but has left mostly sloppy seconds for everyone else.
Now we're seeing a new round of "keep 'em on the site" strategies. CNN is the latest to bemoan those itinerant web users, those who cozy up to CNN, only to “bounce” away without so much as a thank-you. CNN.com -- the top trafficked news site on the web -- wants more loyalty, more time on site that will produce more revenue and simply some, you know, intimacy. “My hunch is that people go to it [CNN.com] more out of habit than they do out of love,” new CNN.com g.m. K.C. Estenson told the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. (The piece was done by TV Newser graduate Brian Stelter, whose work in covering the changing broadcast/cable trade, has increased the Times' media savvy, since his hiring. His blog, TV Decoder, here.)
How to win that love, how to romance fickle newsies is, of course, the bedeviling question.
Among those answering that question is the NYTimes.com's new Times Extra product. Launched at year's end, Times Extra is another attempt to make a media property if not more lovable, then at least more likable. Its plan: Achieve likeability by becoming a more-than-the-Times home page.
Essentially Times Extra is the Times + a non-customizable RSS reader. Toggle it on from a green link at the top of the home page, and you get Times Extra; turning it off is as simple. Its utility is so far limited -- home page only -- but on that home page, you'll see five or six boxes, with nicely highlighted green type for other news brands. In each box, folded smartly below the top stories of the moment, there are contextual web links to related stories.
So Times Extra says this: We know the Times is a great news source, but we also know we're not the end of the world. For Times readers, it's a chance to see what other major and minor sources are saying about top news, without having to go directly to those sites. For the Times, it's a bet, a wager that the value added by contextual content will win NYTimes.com more visitors, more visits and more time on site. So, essentiality overall, and time spent on site more measurably specific.
I appreciate Editor and Publisher giving more attention to time on site, in its monthly tallies, via Nielsen. (Though I'd appreciate a permanent, home-page link to it.) That’s because time on site is key going forward. We can bemoan the relative smallness of dollars going to newspaper online sites as compared to print newspapers; about 10% of all newspaper revenues now come from digital sources. But, consider the relative attention to the two products, and maybe the numbers make more sense.
Figure the average newspaper reader spends maybe 10-15 minutes a day with the paper, somewhat more on Sunday. Multiply that out for a month and you get more than four hours of reading per month Figure the average online user spends maybe 10-15 minutes per month on an individual newspaper sites. That's more than a twenty-fold difference. Maybe the fact that newspapers are getting 10% of their revenues from digital doesn't look so bad.
So, Times Extra is just one attempt to reclaim attention, to reclaim essentiality, to reclaim a bigger, daily presence in people's lives. And to keep building on NYtimes.com time on site, which hit a high-water mark of 40 minutes a couple of months ago, before receding.
So far, I like Times Extra and have used it a bit. Marc Frons, the Times CTO for digital operations, told me he's satisfied with the two-month-old product and plans to extend it inside the site this year. Here's his current thinking:
We’re still targeting the first half of this year. In terms of expansion, what we’re likely to do first is take a version of the Times Extra module for a particular story and just carry over onto the article page. As for section fronts, it’s difficult to say. We don’t have a fixed schedule for this. I think it will ultimately be more valuable on the article page, and as a feature that you can activate dynamically as a user. So, for example, we may not have had BlogRunner find related content for a particular article, but we may enable the option for you to search for such content dynamically. That’s still in the planning stages but it’s the direction that I’d like to see us go.
So far, Frons says that "less than a tenth of NYTimes.com visits to the home page per day" are using Times Extra. The Times reaches about 20 million unique visitors per month, as the top news-company-owned site in the US. He won’t get into metrics, but believes, though it still early to assess, that it is a net-plus. That would mean, to the extent the Times is able to measure, that it is getting more engagement from Times Extra users overall, even as some Times Extra users inevitably click away from the Times site (clicking on a link replaces the Times page with the new site, so that users have to use the back button).
The Times is using the Blogrunner product (which it bought in 2006) to power Times Extra. While Blogrunner currently looks at 10,000 blogs daily, Times Extra so far has chosen a white list of only 200 of them. Frons says new ones will be added, but says no specific internal system of choosing, adding or removing blogs has yet been worked out.
So far, the choice of sources included seems a bit haphazard. To be applauded: prominent mentions of stories from the Times’ direct competitors, the Journal, Washington Post, Politico, etc. I’d glad that blogs are included. Yesterday, I found a good explanatory post from American Spectator’s Ezra Klein on the salmonella outbreak. But then there was a “Brothers Judd” post that ironically just excerpted a Times story, with a one-sentence throwaway comment.
The Times Extra concept is right – part of the Times creeping acknowledgment, as Frons puts it, that the site is “part of the link economy.” The execution should be more dynamic though. Two hundred sources are insufficient, and the Times’ ability to really function in part as an RSS reader demands giving its readers the best, contextual content on the stories of the day. That means adding some editorial intelligence on top of Blogrunner, I think, even as the algorithms are tweaked.
The Times isn’t the first to provide such contextual boxes. WashingtonPost.com has been an early leader, leveraging both Inform and Aggregate Knowledge to provide similar services. But it has buried those boxes – labeled with the names of those tech partners, mystifying its readers – at the bottom of story pages. The BBC has been using Moreover, with a box on a right-hand column of the story page; better, but still not offering the in-your-face contextuality that Times Extra begins to do. Sphere and DayLife are also providing similar services to publishers.
I’ll be curious to see the next revs of the product, and to see whether local and regional sites will see Times Extra as a model for themselves. Imagine an L.A. Times that brought in other Southland newspapers, LAObserved, Blog.ExperienceLA.com, LAist and LA.Curbed.com and other top blogs. The idea: Take the same framework, but leave national and global news to the biggest national players, and instead reclaim the local marketplace. And add some more minutes to their monthly stats.