What should a homepage be?

The data says homepages are dead, a declaration the Atlantic made in 2014. That announcement was predicated by the New York Times’ innovation report, which detailed a 50 percent decline in homepage visitors over two years. Thanks to social media, fewer people are visiting websites through the front door, instead jumping to whatever article caught their attention, then leaving.

But we already know that. The question now becomes, what should sites do with their dead homepages? Rather than throw them out and submit entirely to Facebook, the best strategy for those neglected aspects of digital architecture is experimentation. When nobody’s looking, there’s little risk in trying something new. And for what that could look like, I turn to an even more dead medium: the print newspaper.

Newsprint has its flaws, such as costing money and not being the Internet. But from a design perspective, it’s a great way to distribute a digest of information. Politico’s senior media writer Jack Shafer wrote a piece last month extolling the virtues of the medium:

Print — particularly the newspaper — is an amazingly sophisticated technology for showing you what’s important, and showing you a lot of it. The newspaper has refined its user interface for more than two centuries… Newspaper designers have created a universal grammar of headline size, typeface, place, letter spacing, white space, sections, photography, and illustration that gives readers subtle clues on what and how to read to satisfy their news needs.

The paper is a self-contained apparatus. It guides you through information with a clear progression, marking your progress by page and section number so that you don’t get overwhelmed. It represents the height of editorial curation: a newspaper limits itself to the amount of available blank space.

Online homepages accomplish none of these things. They have a visual hierarchy to tell you what’s most important, but they can’t resist the urge to cram every open space with links, ads and email newsletter signups. It’s impossible to take a natural walk through a news website and feel like you’ve gotten a reasonable and balanced diet of current events for the day. You’re more likely to end up knee-deep in real estate or recipes, unsure how you got there or how to find anything else in the publication’s cumbersome navigation.

Here’s an opportunity to improve the user experience. Publications have the chance to take the best of print news and apply it to their websites. That doesn’t look like a digitized version of a newspaper, but it could track with the structure of a paper product. A broadly informative front page, discrete sections for different types of news and easy movement from one story to another are all improvements to the digital reading experience that analog media has shown us how to make. Here’s a quick mockup of what I’m envisioning:

Stories exist within the framework of the page, not as separate destinations. Travel from one section to another is fluid, and each presents you with a curated list of important stories. There’s no clutter, no jarring transitions, nothing to interrupt the reading experience.

Reworking the homepage makes it a discrete destination, rather than a redundant workaround to Facebook and Twitter. Treating it as an entry point to a different product from those feeds helps publications attract readership to a platform they own. It makes a dead piece of the web interesting again.