Are home pages dying? And what is the value of a shadow reader?

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!

Comments

Is this the first time MR has invited any and all commenters for comments (as opposed to occasional Cowen blegs?)

Haven't looked at your home page in more than a year. I get the feed.

Maybe I'm just really drunk but am I a shadow reader or some other kind of reader? I'm not understanding the shadow reader concept.

The real issue is quantity. The home page matters when there are relatively few articles or, in the case of this blog, posts. But as more and more sites to become seas of content too vast to navigate from a single page, readers begin to depend on in-bound links. The sea-of-content strategy may be advertising-driven, because it gives sites more potential eyeballs to aggregate, but it may also arise from a theory that more items means more chances for attention and buzz.

I'm not sure what this has to do with shadow readers.

Shadow readers are in some sense like free riders. They enjoy the option value without contributing any (or fewer) resources to preserve the option. Or is the argument that their existence DOES contribute resources?

I read this blog via Newsblur an RSS reader every day. Does that make me a shadow reader?

what about "shadow bloggers" like Alex?

I had an Internet marketing expert tell me the other day that people are treating Facebook the way they did AOL in the '90s. In other words, Facebook IS the Internet for many people - they never go anywhere else. The NYT has more than 7 million Facebook likes vs. a total circulation (print and digital) of about 1.9 million.

I'm one of those dinosaurs that still uses RSS for 90% of my blog reading, although I do find some good links via Twitter as well.

I'm with @Doug. I learned about this column from a twitter post. I continue to use RSS with a desktop application and I glean tons of material on my many interests that way. But twitter is a kind of front-page news service for me.

This is one of three blogs that I read every day. I arrive via my "top sites" window.

What kind of readers are people who comment every day but only occasionally read the blog?

+1111.
Shallow commenters?

The German variety, or someone else?

Another Shadow RSS Reader here but MR is also very much one of the sites I link to most on Twitter. Without RSS many sites would not exist to me anymore, it's just so much more effective to keep up in a reader than manually checking and I don't usually have to worry how poorly optimized a site design is for actual reading (looking at you, Reason.com)

I think it's a valid argument.

The content I read, including MR, comes to me almost exclusively through RSS feeds. I post what I like to my circles on g+ if I think it would tickle someone's fancy. If I had a large group of friends that were reading them, which I don't, I imagine it would contribute to the aforementioned network effect. Never really understood why RSS didn't capture a bigger share of users, and I miss Google Reader. I use Tiny Tiny RSS now, not sure what other people do. I wouldn't call myself a shadow reader, I read a few posts from this site on any given day I think.

As far as pleasing your readers go, I probably disagree with, and dislike, more than half of what gets written on this site and I don't particularly expect it to change. I suspect most content producers dramatically overestimate how demanding their readers are; mostly because they give too much weight to the vocal minority, and possibly because if you piss off the wrong group badly enough they may galvanize a group of people larger than the base readership of a site with the express goal of destroying said site's reputation and readership. People don't need to hear exactly what they want to hear all the time.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of bloggers? The Shadow Reader knows...

Comparing the NYTimes to a blog is not useful. This site is a crude blog with a limited number of links and navigation points. A news site like the NYTimes is a vastly more complex creation. They harm themselves with the complexity but it makes them feel smart and clever so they keep making their site more complex.

This is a fairly well researched issue in the commercial area. Companies are advised to make their point of entry simple and have clear navigation paths. Look at some of the most popular sites. Google, Wiki, Drudge, Twitter and youtube all have a very basic interface.

It would help to define "shadow reader".

Here is one definition: "The Shadow Reader is an urban fantasy romance by Sandy Williams".

Really when I read this in a RSS feeder I thought he was talking about GeoCities.

And yes, that is dead.

This is the key sentence: "When a blog is linked to the reputations of its producers, rather than to advertising revenue, the home page remains all the more important. "

What is interesting in that in the real world, not Voxland, Twitter is now talking about having a home page.

There is also Reddit, the home page of the internet.

If you are a person without a Facebook page

or a Homepage,

Are you

Homeless?

One reason, maybe the main reason, I read MR is for TC's reading list. In other words, I let TC (or whoever does it for him) do the difficult work of identifying material worth reading, confident as I am (based on past experience) that TC's reading list includes a broad range of views/subjects. Sure, I read MR for the substantive posts too, but the reading list is invaluable. While I don't doubt that being a celebrity economist has its rewards, I'm still impressed with TC's intellectual curiosity (as reflected in his reading list).

I really don't understand the decline of RSS. I know I'm past 40 and that's probably part of this, but I can't be the only person on the Internet that wants to collect news from sources I trust and read it when I'm ready to read it. Blogs like this are a form of curating the news. I don't have major newspapers or sites in my feed, I have secondary blogs that filter for me. I can't be the only person that wants to be fairly sure that if I'm busy for a day that all the news I want to read is still there, when I have time to read it. That doesn't even consider the absurdity of trying to go and open 100-200 web homepages every day. Or comments. Blech. (Yes, I see the irony there.)

To me RSS *IS* the newspaper, and I can pick it up and put it down when I am ready to do so, and I don't have to worry that if I put the paper down too long half the news will age out and disappear. Of course, part of making this work is being very selective about what I put in my RSS feed. If I find three post in a row are a waste of my time the blog is out.

As far as I am concerned Twitter and Facebook may be "everyone's" new version of RSS, but neither one works for me at all. Twitter is too ephemeral and I am not going to lose the cognitive focus I need for my work to keep checking Twitter to be sure I don't miss anything by bloggers I want to read. Also, even bloggers I particularly want to read are going to have a high ratio of social tweets to actual links to prose. Facebook is 1000 times worse, and I don't even have an account there. Trying to read good articles while scrolling past 20 anti-Obama-is-a-muslim screed by idiots I vaguely knew from high school is not a good use of my time.

Corey, +1 -- the only comment that makes sense on this post

"the fewer people use RSS, the better content providers can allow RSS to be"

How can RSS be better? It just is. On or off.

Full-text vs. snippet feeds (which only show the first sentence/paragraph) is the distinction he's making. I have many snippet RSS feeds in my newsreader which I keep meaning to delete, because they're infuriating, but occasionally there's a good one that makes me click through. I appreciate's MR's fulltext feed.

Also, I know I'm not a shadow reader here because I can distinctly remember typing out some comment on an MR blog on my crappy smartphone keyboard.

I highly doubt it is in the long-term interests of media companies to rely too heavily on Facebook as a means of diffusing their media to their audiences.

The leadership of the company has too reliably shown its type.

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.

I read blogs, including this one, almost exclusively through RSS feeds, and I'm the sort of person described: I do sometimes I submit articles to Reddit or Hacker News or add them to my own links posts, or for the matter send an article from one blog to the writer of another.

I use an old and somewhat crappy version of NetNewsWire, which should be better in many respects but does what it needs to do well enough for my purposes.

The NYT should replace it's home page with hashtag driven search results page. Fill it with the top 20 trending articles, and let recognized users set the search tags. Promote through Twitter, Facebook, etc

I follow along with MR through RSS to email (blogtrottr.com). Saves me a lot of time and ensures that I don't miss a beat here.

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