Ezra Klein has a very good post on this topic. He notes that for The New York Times:
…home page traffic has fallen by half over the last two years. This is true even though the NYT’s home page has been beautifully redesigned, and the NYT’s overall traffic is up.
The value of the company is up as well. And then:
This is the conventional wisdom across the industry now: the new home page is Facebook and Twitter. The old home page — which is the actual home page — is dying a slow, painful death.
I’m skeptical. The thing about “push media” is someone needs to do the pushing. Someone has to post an article to Twitter or Facebook. That can be the media brand. It can even be the journalists. But when articles work it’s really coming from the readers.
Those readers of course are often the dedicated ones who find the article on your home page. Ezra makes this additional point in passing, which I think is a neat example of how counterintuitive microeconomics can hold in the world of the internet:
Some of the most committed users are still clicking through the RSS feed (which is one reason Vox maintains a full-text RSS feed).
I would put it this way: the fewer people use RSS, the better content providers can allow RSS to be. There is less fear of cannibalization, and more hope that easy RSS access will help a post go viral through Facebook and other social media.
When a blog is linked to the reputations of its producers, rather than to advertising revenue, the home page remains all the more important. That is who you are, and many people realize that, even if they are not reading you at the moment. I call those “shadow readers.” For MR, I have long thought that the value of shadow readers is quite high. (“Tyler and Alex are still writing that blog — great stuff, right? I don’t get to look at it every day [read: hardly at all]. Why don’t we have them in for a talk?”) In other words, a shadow reader is someone who hardly reads the blog at all, but has a not totally inaccurate model of what the blog is about. For Vox or the NYT the value of a shadow reader is lower, although shadow readers still may talk up those sites to potential real readers. For companies which run lots of events, such as The Atlantic, the value of shadow readers may be high because it helps make them focal even without the daily eyeballs.
What if everyone were a shadow reader? What is the MRS between real readers and shadow readers? And which are you? Can a shadow reader sometimes be better to have? After shadow readers don’t get so upset with you and don’t so much expect that you will write to please them!