Why the Daily, Murdoch’s “tablet newspaper,” will be DOA

When I first heard the phrase “iPad newspaper” — shorthand for Rupert Murdoch’s not-so-secret-any-more new project — I puzzled over its oxymoronic implications. Forget about the, you know, iPad/paper contradiction and think about the business. Murdoch is reportedly spending $30 million on this thing. Could that possibly pay off with a product that’s tethered to a single, new platform? Puzzled, I tweeted, “Will they stop me from reading it on my desktop?”

Apparently, the answer is yes. The Guardian writes that this new publication will feature “a tabloid sensibility with a broadsheet intelligence” (funny, that’s pretty much how David Talbot described Salon when we started it!) and tells us:

According to reports, there will be no “print edition” or “web edition”; the central innovation, developed with assistance from Apple engineers, will be to dispatch the publication automatically to an iPad or any of the growing number of similar devices. With no printing or distribution costs, the US-focused Daily will cost 99 cents (62p) a week.

Now, these “reports” (and the Guardian) may be unreliable here; we won’t know for sure till Murdoch unveils his product. But taking these rumors at face value, it sounds like Murdoch intends to deliver his latest news baby into a tablet-only world. A Monday column by David Carr confirms the report and adds some detail: The publication is to be called The Daily, and it will, apparently, be just that: “It will be produced into the evening, and then a button will be pushed and it will be ‘printed’ for the next morning. There will be updates — the number of which is still under discussion — but not at the velocity or with the urgency of a news Web site.” Wonderful! Slower news — and at a higher price.

First, let’s give Murdoch credit for what’s intelligent about this plan. It’s smart to ditch the original “legacy” of paper and the more recent legacy of website publishing — to build something fresh for a new platform rather than do the old shovelware dance. And it’s smart to jump in relatively early, to snag users when the tabula is still rasa.

For Murdoch, I have to imagine there is also something personal about this project. I’m sure he is furious that he has so far failed to extend his record of success and dominance, unbroken in other media, into the digital world. The iPad must look to him like his latest, best, and perhaps last chance to do so, after the humiliating embarrassment of his MySpace investment and the apparent trainwreck of the Times UK paywall.

But how likely is it that any significant number of people will pay $50 a year (or a bit less, assuming a subscription discount) for what is likely to be an above-average but hardly essential or irreplaceable periodical? It’s not as if iPad users have no existing sources of online news, innovative delivery mechanisms for information, or a shortage of stuff to read. iPad users love their browsers; the device is great for reading the free Web.

Murdoch will need more than half a million people to pay that fee to cover a $30M budget (less if he can sell ads), so maybe the thing will work. I’ll bet against it, though, assuming it’s as the Guardian and Carr describe it. I’ll base my bet on the same logic that I’ve long articulated about why paywalls are a bad idea (the problem is not with the “pay” but with the “wall”).

Why do people love getting their news online? It’s timely, it’s convenient, it’s fast — all that matters. Murdoch’s tablet could match that (though it sounds like it may drop the ball on “timely” and “fast”). But even more important than that, online news is connected: it’s news that you can respond to, link to, share with friends. It is part of a back-and-forth that you are also a part of.

Murdoch’s tablet thingie will be something else — a throwback to the isolation of pre-Web publications. Like a paywalled website, this tablet “paper” will discourage us from talking about its contents because we can’t link to it. In other words, like a paywalled site, it expects us to pay for something that is actually less useful and valuable than the free competition.

It’s possible, of course, that the creators of Murdoch’s tablet publication will try to turn it into a true interactive project — where interactive doesn’t mean “buttons you can click on” but rather “people you can interact with.” If they’re smart, they’ll try to build a community within their walls. But that’s a very difficult goal to achieve even if you embrace it wholeheartedly. At big media companies like News Corp., this idea is more often an afterthought than a priority.

Much more likely, the Murdoch project will make the same mistake so many big-media-backed digital ventures have made before. It will assume that its content is so unique, its personality so compelling, its information so rich that readers will regard it as essential. Yet even if it is a really good digital periodical — and it might be! — it is hard to imagine what News Corp. can do to make it that essential, in a world awash in news and information.

(Carr reports that “Initially, there will be a mirror site on the Web to market some of its wares outside the high-walled kingdom of apps.” I’ll bet that over time this mirror site will either grow to be the “real” Daily, as editors realize the free numbers dwarf the pay numbers, or they will pull up the drawbridge completely to try to force a few more customers to pay. It’s Slate 1998 all over again! Will we get Daily umbrellas?)

Now, I know a lot of my friends in journalism are rooting for Murdoch here because they see the pay-for-your-apps iPad model as a deus ex machina that will intervene to save the threatened business model of the old-school newsroom. (Carr’s column weighs the pros and cons here well.)

If you’ve read this far you know I think that’s unlikely. I also think it’s undesirable. On this, I stand with Tim Berners-Lee — who did the primary work in creating the Web two decades ago.

I followed the coverage of Murdoch’s venture around the same time I read Berners-Lee’s great essay on the 20th anniversary of the open Web., I’ll let him have the last word:

The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.

UPDATE: Sam Diaz at ZDNet shares my skepticism. I originally avoided writing here about the angle turning up suggesting that Steve Jobs was personally involved in the NewsCorp Daily project and had loaned Murdoch an engineering team; it appeared to be super-thinly sourced. Diaz agrees. We’ll all know soon enough.

In the meantime, let me take gentle issue with the concern both Diaz and Carr raise about the size of the Daily staff. Diaz asks: “Can a team of 100 reporters covering everything from Hollywood to Washington really dig in deep enough to produce the type of content worthy of that paid subscription?” Short answer: If 100 can’t, then 500 couldn’t, either. Carr: “How do you put out an original national newspaper every day with a staff of only 100?” Short answer: You don’t try to cover everything, but you cover what you do cover so originally and engagingly that people can’t resist.

Come on, people: 100 journalists is a huge newsroom as long as you’re not trying to be a “paper” — er, “tablet” — of record. If anything, it’s too big. The key, of course, lies in who those 100 people are, and how you deploy them. The problems with the Daily don’t lie in how much Murdoch is spending or how many bodies he’s hiring, but rather with some of the central premises of the project.

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Comments

  1. @valdez, yes, you’re right. Not only extreme, also just ignorant of the actual facts. MySpace could die today, and it would prove to be an undeniably successful acquisition for News Corp. They made back all their money and then some on a single ad deal with Google. (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/5254642.stm). And that’s saying nothing about the nontrivial injection of digital DNA into News Corp.

  2. Scott Salomon

    You are 100% right. The iPad app market is 1 big Steve Jobs con job. I know of #1 global apps in certain categories with around 1,000 installs a day. The device is big enough for a full blown browser experience so why in the hell would you come up with a mish mash app based delivery of the same and potentially inferior content.

    Old thinking Mr Murdoch. You should have hired 100 software engineers and put them in a room for a year; would have been a much better investment. You are pushing sh#t up a hill and should sell up.

    Good luck (former) Aussie.

  3. Dave O'Neal

    An interesting point of view but if Apple has proved anything it’s don’t under estimate their products. Yes there are a number of online news sources, but I don’t see a lot of them updating the news in real time. An iPad only (for now, why not branch out to other tablets in the future) product will be able to use the software / hardware combination that has sold millions of iPads. Perhaps this news paper will look similar to the news paper in the Harry Potter movies with moving photos and audio? It may move us forward, kicking and screaming, like cellular phones have. I will reserve my opinion until the actual product arrives.

  4. Bloggs

    There are more simple reasons why this is DOA. Murdoch is Fox News. Outside Republicans in the US he has no credibility. Who would pay to read right wing extremist news in, say, Australia, Europe or Asia? No one. His name is mud.

  5. Hari Seldon

    “Murdoch is Fox News. Outside Republicans in the US he has no credibility.”

    Well here in the UK Murdoch’s newspapers are dominant, The Times, The Financial Times and the Sun, so I disagree that Fox News is his only audience.

    The Sun in particular is the most popular tabloid in the UK, it has a particularly moronic following and is so influential that it can largely determine the results of general elections.

  6. Oh, Scott, Scott, Scott. You old Web guys (TB-L included! Double for TB-L, in fact, since he was even opposed to HTML5 until recently) are so threatened by change!

    Remember when you launched Salon and all the old print guys scoffed and said it would never work? That the Web itself was a fad, like CB Radio?

    You should be rooting for Rupert. I am. The Daily is sure to evolve—just as Salon and Slate and everything else that survived has evolved—and maybe it’ll find a sustainable model somewhere between the closed, downloadable native app approach and the wide open web.

  7. Anthony

    Bloggs..

    When are you going to just stop spouting off left wing conspiracies? I am an independent and when I want REAL news, I turn to fox… Don’t you just hate us independents? Can’t tell who we are so you can’t attack us with your liberal lies and WE control the vote..

    Well, you just saw that didn’t you…

  8. I wonder when the smart people in business will start to realize the internet is here to REPLACE other platforms, so shifts, changes, declines in users, etc. should be expected. People will like to get their news online because that’s why the internet is here. It’d be great for the internet experts, etc. to get familiar with the internet as a communications and information delivery platform. Would solve a lot of the hassles, speculations and mistruths that are unnecessarily destroying businesses that provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people.

    In more than three decades, the same business rules have existed over platforms and survived, including paywall models. Highly suggest you research it. You’ll find that ad only models are rarely the predominant models in content business not because evil media giants want to sock it to the little guy, but because ad only content sucks, gives poor access and poor quality, driving people to pay for something better by choice.

  9. Scott Rosenberg

    Patricia, it’s not clear to me whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me here, but let me address your suggestion that “the same business rules” have existed “in more than three decades.” First, three decades is a pretty short horizon. Second, while I don’t necessarily agree that the Internet is “replacing” anything (new media redefine but don’t entirely replace predecessors — that’s why we still have radio, live theater, etc.), I do think it is changing “business rules.” It’s made it possible, for instance, for me to publish this little blog and have this conversation with you. As you can see, it’s neither ad-supported nor paywalled. It’s just people talking. And there are millions of others doing the same thing. Observers often dismiss this phenomenon with the “it sucks” argument, but they’ve generally missed the boat — this was my central argument in SAY EVERYTHING. I think the folks behind The Daily may be missing it, too.

    Josh Q: Threatened by change? I *love* change! :-) But is the Daily “change” or just reversion to an outdated mode? I do think that openness as a principle — and as a fact of business — isn’t going away, and continue to believe it’s a useful lens to apply to new ventures. If that makes me “an old Web guy,” so be it…

  10. raycote

    If Apple is seriously involved in this design, it is more likely to be a video-news / text-based-drill-down combo media format. Basically TV news with an embedded newspaper. This format has not yet been fully tapper or creatively optimized.

    Linking to outsiders can be very liberal until the potential new viewer/reader show serious ongoing interest. Then accesses can be slowly metered down while simultaneously bombarding the potential new viewer/reader with a thick barrage of enticing carrot flavored loss leaders to join. I smell a Groupon-like advertising stream.

  11. DOA predictions when there’s no product or enough verifiable information about it are DOA ;-)

    (especially when you’re betting against Steve Jobs, Scott!)

  12. Robert

    Based on what News Corporation has done to the Wall Street Journal in the last year, I would have no interest whatsoever in this publication.

  13. Lauren

    I’m pretty unconvinced by your argument.
    Someone is going to figure out how to make a subscription newspaper and control the ad revenue from it. The open web has few success stories, but in a walled garden like the iPad has, I have to say that the idea of a daily newspaper for it is pretty compelling.

    I am willing to pay journalists for what they do. Especially if they do a good job. I wont pay for hackneyed op/ed pieces because I can get those for free on the internet and are a dime a dozen. But I’ll read people who are capable journalists and who tell compelling stories.

    This is a nice counterpoint to the blogosphere. Maybe the fractured nature of everyone having an opinion is actually not as good as having professionals present a polished product. Just like iTunes could sell music and movies that people could download for free. Will it save the print industry? Nope. Could it help journalism? I sure as hell hope so.

  14. Hari Seldon says: “Well here in the UK Murdoch’s newspapers are dominant, The Times, The Financial Times…”

    Since the Financial Times is owned by Pearson PLC (who have nothing whatsoever to do with Murdoch, and are “only” the largest book publisher in the world (Penguin and Dorling Kindersley being among their imprints)), this must be some strange, alternate-universe UK you’re describing.

    How are things over there?

  15. “Someone is going to figure out how to make a subscription newspaper and control the ad revenue from it.”

    They did. It involved paper.

    More seriously, the problem with your premise is, you’re assuming advertising will still make as much money as in the past. There’s no evidence for that — quite the contrary.

    Newspapers aren’t dying. Advertising is dying, and taking newspapers along as collateral damage.

    Kurt Andersen recently tweeted, “Per @NewYorker, Gawker Media gets $1/yr per monthly unique; Spy in ’89 got $30/yr (in ’10 dollars) per monthly reader.” Given that price indicates demand, the demand for advertising is evaporating. Total ad sales peaked in 2008, and have yet to recover. Google (and others) are picking up some slack online, but it’s not unlike music — the amount spent on online advertising isn’t matching the old physical media (iTunes vs CDs being the comparison).

    Read Bob Garfield’s “Chaos Scenario” pieces in Advertising Age, if you haven’t already. The ad business these days is terrified.

  16. Hudson

    I’ll be one of the first to subscribe to the ‘Daily’ news at $1 a week. My local paper provides very poor news, although I’ll miss some of the local news.

  17. There may be a lot of news out there, but could there be too MUCH news that users today crave for a central starting point to get the news they want daily?

    I don’t think Murdoch is daft enough to turn this iPad project into a literal representation of newspapers today with just text. I expect videos, commentary, sharing of links, and even archives for paying customers.

    The devil is in the details, but I am certain people will pay for quality news with great editorial control.

  18. I think I might actually be the target audience for this thing: I would LOVE having a daily newspaper, nicely edited by a professional, downloaded daily to my iPad to read on my way to work (without internt connection) for the price of 99ct / week.
    In my opinion this could be a GREAT way to have a daily newspaper delivered every morning freshly ,printed’ for a really, really exciting price. I am currently missig out on a newspaper subscription because of the costs (around 30 Pounds) and can’t read my online news when I don’t have internet connection and will definitely subscribe to this thingy as soon as it releases.
    Also I’d like to throw in the iAd Service and the possibility of online content like videos, interactive games and crossword puzzles and so on.
    Before dissing and whining about this – without any question interesting – project, I’m going to wait until it’s announcement and find out what exactly it’s going to offer.

  19. The concept reminds me of USA Today, which at 1.8 million copies beats Murdoch’s WSJ print circ (WSJ has another 400K online). Murdoch and Jobs are big boys who can spend big bucks. The chances of anything they do being DOA are therefore small. USA Today was unprofitable for years and probably never had the margins Gannett and Al Neuharth hoped for but it is widely read and still going after 27 years. Size matters in media. (see http://bit.ly/bloghit4).

    So lets have some real reporting about this remarkable development, not another fact-less frenzy of idle speculation. Specifically what are they doing? Who have they hired and what does that say about their editorial? What are they telling potential advertisers, partners, etc.

  20. Scott,
    I’m sympathetic to your arguements, but DOA is a bit of a stretch. Few have Murdoch’s business leverage or sustainable financing. He’s in a position to create new values in culture, e.g. paying for content online, by bending the market to his will. Will he be successful? We’ll see, but for those of us who actually think that smart, creative professionals should be paid for reporting the news, Murdoch is on our side. I don’t agree with his politics, and some of his media properties are outright annoying, but he took a public stand last year that, ‘people have to pay for journalism’ and he is backing it up. For having the guts and integrity, he deserves respect, and teamed with Apple, the benefit of the doubt.

    And, sure, there are lots of obstacles. You lay them out…it’s a great blog. Will consumer paywalls fail because the web is enormously weighted towards social engagement–even over the consumption of news? “…if I can’t share it, I’m not interested, and i’m certainly not going to pay,” goes the convention. Also, if we can make the risky assumption that paid news means higher quality, given culture’s seemingly insatiable appetite for pablum (something Murdoch knows very well :), will people even want to pay? And there is the question of platforms. Murdoch has been quoted as saying there will be 40m iPads running around by next year’s end. Not so sure about that, especially given Android platforms are swarming the tablet market at a lower price in the coming months.

    Problems, problems. Anyway, hats off to Rupert for putting his money where his mouth is.

  21. My initial reaction upon reading Scott Rosenberg’s well-reasoned article is to agree that Murdoch’s latest adventure won’t work. I’m a WSJ subscriber, but this “Daily” holds little interest to me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put money on Murdoch failing; that’s what “experts” said about Fox TV. As for the MySpace disaster, chalk that up to Murdoch’s son James, who was instrumental in the purchase and then disintegration. That’s probably the bigger story: Murdoch is about 80, and his putative heirs aren’t clones of the old man.

  22. @Anthony

    Nice to see you came right out and admitted it.

    Fox News controls you, who in turn controls the vote.

    Lets not forget who owns Fox News!

    For an independent, you sure don’t try to think independently… I think you use that title to make you feel like something you aren’t. You know.. like when they give large people the nickname”Tiny”.

    It may be hard as an “independent” to understand this, but outside the United States Fox News has LESS credibility than the Daily Show.. and we KNOW they are making it up to be funny.

    Fox News is the pretty hate machine.

  23. I just don’t see this reaching the Murdouche market, I mean ipads are not really for the great unwashed, knuckle sucking, throw-backs who divide their time between faux-newts, rasslin’, and the drama of really tv. Actually, I don’ think his market see a difference. And I don’t see them spending ipad money to get more of the dumbed down message.

    Hey Rup! Only women bleed…

  24. alansky

    Calling the iPad “a single new platform” is like calling the first printing press “a single distribution method”. Scott Rosenberg has no idea what he’s talking about. You can’t crank out words by the yard like drapery fabric, Mr. Rosenberg. You’re supposed to know what you’re talking about before you use them!

  25. SimonG

    I think that any information source which isn’t web-based is at a hefty disadvantage. I might consider paying for a sufficiently good on-line paper but if so I’d want to be able to read it MY way. Sometimes at home, on my PC; sometimes on a borrowed PC; sometimes on my ‘phone.

    A Web based “paper” offers that client independence. It also opens up a much larger market: everybody on the Internet.

  26. “iPad users love their browsers; the device is great for reading the free Web.” actually they don’t. The iPad Safari browser doesn’t support Flash which cuts out a significant percentage of the “free web”… browsing the web of an iPad is quite painful when compared to browsing on a Galaxy tablet for example (which does support both HTML5 and Flash). Rather than support a “free web” Apple are in the business of restricting accessibility in an attempt to monetize content. Don’t get me wrong, I love them but there’s nothing “free” or “open” in their approach to digital publishing.

  27. Ian Gibson

    The problem is the journalism. Look at blogs, look at the alternatives and amongst all the noise is pure gold: unreported; undereported; unbiased; local, etc information unexpurgated by the media machine. Anything by Murdoch or any other media mogul de facto carries one or other of the biased mentioned above. You just can’t get to the real story without the free web: everything else is censorship

  28. Ian,
    I think it might be a bit more complex than you are letting on. In one sense, you’re of course right. Reporting biases exist — always. And the free and open hive-mind of the web allows for aggregation of perspectives, ameliorating bias, bringing multiple perspectives, and highlighting the sometimes terrible manipulations of corporate media.

    But free news is great as long as we don’t think we need to pay professionals to report it. I’d like to introduce you to my step-daughter, a professional journalist, who lives the demand of digging, fact-checking, confirming sources, double fact-checking and digging some more, all to bring integrity and the greatest degree of objectivity to the job as she can. You’re are essentially arguing that if we pay people to do this, they’ll be under the thumb of corporate interests. But if we don’t pay journalists, we risk a greater loss — the professional standards and values of good journalism. I don’t agree with Murdoch’s politics, but he’s concretely insisting that journalists be paid, and that people pay for online journalism.

    This may be a more important advance of freedoms than any news that serves his politics or corporate interests.

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