New York Times Homepage Link-Outs: Right Direction, Wrong Tool

| About: New York (NYT)

The author is Editor-in-Chief of Seeking Alpha

The New York Times Online, the world's most highly trafficked news site, today began a live experiment with linking out to other sites from beneath headlines on its homepage. The product receives the unfortunate name 'Times Extra', which does little to convey its novelty - the digital Grey Lady is now redirecting traffic to other sites, including direct competitors, from its most valuable online real estate.

I find this fascinating, as I'm convinced that some mixture of internal content and selective linking out will characterize the entire next generation of news/opinion sites (we're developing our own Market Currents in this direction), so I'm very curious to see how it works out at A few initial thoughts on the Times' effort:

Rick Turoczy at ReadWriteWeb praises the Times for overcoming the mainstream media's longstanding fear of the external link. True, but it's bigger than that. This marks a significant change in thinking about what a news site's homepage should be. In the old model, a homepage was considered merely a gateway to inner page content, and its success could therefore be judged by the number of click-throughs to that content. Linking out from the homepage humbly acknowledges something perfectly obvious - that no one site has the best or most interesting coverage of absolutely everything. So why not "do what you do best and link out to the rest," as Jeff Jarvis says? This frees editors to apply the same discernment used in the publication's own article selection and composition to the act of choosing external links - "curating" links for its readers, as Jarvis, Tina Brown and Mindy McAdams advocate.

Why send a reader away from your own content, which likely lowers the pageviews-per-visit for that particular reader? Because if you truly provide value in the link (ie. the landing page is compelling and relevant to the subject at hand), that reader will be far more likely to visit your site on a regular basis than if you only link to your internal content. In the end, your internal content will receive more visits via your homepage with this approach, as you continually gain reader trust and loyalty in the overall value of your homepage selection.

But given the move in this direction, why does the Times use an automated solution like Blogrunner (which it happens to own) to link out? Why not assign a few smart homepage or news editors to scour worthwhile peers and blogs and apply links to what is truly the best supplementary reading on that news topic? At a time when even a wildly popular automated aggregator like TechMeme acknowledges it needs human editors since "automated news doesn't quite work," why take an algorithmic approach to this? For a task like this, I'll take a smart editor armed with a packed RSS reader over an algorithm any day. Of course, the Times faces the issue of appearing politically impartial and avoiding claims of bias, but 'fair and balanced linking' could offset that concern.

Eric Schonfeld at TechCrunch finds the Times' new product simply adds clutter and confusion, and would work better on article pages:

I would like to see these links on individual article pages because they do provide some good context and different takes on the same story. But they don’t belong on the homepage... Once I know that the Mumbai attackers were trained in Pakistan, I don’t need three more headlines on the same story. That clutters the page, and leaves less room for other headlines.

Human editors adding links could at least mitigate this problem by selecting only items that truly augment the Times' coverage, rather than duplicate it.

TomsTechBlog, meanwhile, thinks it just doesn't make business sense:

You need to judge whether new business methods work based on actual, tangible results. Not how the blogging community feels about a feature or how cool your tech department thinks it would be to do something. The New York Times is walking down a road that doesn’t deliver the revenue stream they need to survive and rather than acknowledge that they’re choosing to continue down that same road. While the Wall Street Journal, with it’s (sic) walled garden approach, continues to see revenue rise and circulation hold steady.

Great user experience doesn’t pay the bills for a company the size of the New York Times and someone there needs to realize that.

Well, Times Extra isn't great user experience, but if the Times ever does manage to provide that via smart linking out - from its homepage or elsewhere - I'm confident that would raise its traffic and business prospects as well. The New York Times Company isn't bleeding cash because of its digital operation, and innovation there will likely be its best hope going forward. But innovation that fails to leverage what makes the Times great in the first place - wonderfully talented journalists - seems misguided to me.