Murdoch’s Daily: post-Web innovation or CD-ROM flashback?

A decade ago, if you were a “digital” person — if you were interested in how computer technology was changing our culture and economy — then you were a Web person. The Web, built on top of the Internet and ultimately eclipsing its source, dispatched its competitors — the closed online services, the packaged-goods multimedia/CD-ROM industry — and became, for a time, the single face of the digital revolution.

This week’s launch of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad “newspaper,” the Daily, is a milestone: It’s the first significant attempt, since the Web conquered the digital world in 1995, to create a major new media product that embraces technology yet spurns the Web — and the public Internet, too. Chris Anderson’s Wired “Web is Dead” package was the warning shot for this phenomenon, but the Daily’s introduction puts it in front of us in palpable touch-screen form. It boldly declares: We’re digital people but we’re not Web people.

Why do I say that the Daily spurns the Web and the Net? I mean, beyond the obvious reason that there is no Web site that offers its contents in a convenient form each day. It’s not just that. The Daily also contains no links. (Some today see this as a plus; I do not.) There are no RSS feeds. No email addresses to contact the writers and editors. No email alerts or mailing list. Comments on the articles, yes, but not reachable through the Web. No, archives, back issue index, or search! (They’re on Twitter, however. They have a blog, too, and it’s not bad.)

In other words, most of the apparatus of two-way communication that every serious digital publishing venture of the past 15 years has taken as a given is missing from the Daily. They’re serious about this iPad-only thing! But they don’t seem to realize that they’re repeating the mistakes of the very recent past.

The Daily’s designers are eager to show off sparkling graphics, integrated video, and the swipe-ability that the iPad allows. Unfortunately, they are defining “interactivity” the way the lost pioneers of the 1994-era CD-ROM “multimedia revolution” defined it. They have built a gleaming but limited set of interfaces for users to interact with static, prepackaged content. The Web taught us that true interactivity was the interaction between people moderated by the network — along with the personalization you could build into the network based on those people’s behavior.

The Daily’s one concession to today’s Web is the mechanisms it provides for its readers to share individual stories via the usual routes — Facebook, Twitter, email. The recipient of your share notice receives a link to a URL that’s a Web-page version of the Daily article. We don’t know how long these web addresses will be good for. But for the moment, at least, it’s pretty easy to assemble a set of links that points you to the Web-accessible versions of each article in the day’s Daily edition. That’s what Andy Baio has done.

How long will Baio’s index last? Will it still be easy to assemble after the Daily’s first-two-weeks-free period ends? Will the News Corp. folks ask him to take it down? We’ll have to wait and see.

The question is whether the Daily’s secession from the Web is a matter of convenience or ideology for its creators. Did they put their energy into spiffing things up for the iPad — the hard, fun, innovative part — figuring that they can circle back to beef up their Web offerings later? Or do they feel that it is their calling, their mission, to leave the Web behind?

My prediction: If they’re pragmatists about the Web, they’ve got a chance — they can adapt and evolve their product so it’s a little more up to date, less hermetic and more inclusive of the public that lives online today. But if they’re ideologues — if they really believe that what is essentially a magazine “pasted on a screen” is the future of journalism — then they’re in deep trouble, and the Daily will only be Murdoch’s latest and most spectacular digital money-sink.

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  1. Scott, great post. I’m writing about this same question in my Xconomy column for tomorrow. But to react to your post quickly: I actually think The Daily is deliberately about “static, prepackaged content.” So are magazines! And they did pretty well for the better part of a century.

    The Web imposes its own set of constraints around design and usability, and while the iPad can tap the Web, it is not *of* the Web, which is what has created all this room for experimentation. I, for one, think it’s going to be pretty interesting to watch how readers use The Daily. It would not surprise me if The Daily succeeded in proving that a good chunk of iPad owners are looking, at the end of a long work day, for a lean-back, magazine-style experience more than a lean-forward, two-way experience. If that audience is willing to inject some cash back into the news business, that can’t be bad.

  2. Digital Publishing still needs content to publish. Is the Daily actually providing any content that is unique, different, not available elsewhere? What if they signed popular columnists to write only for the Daily?

    Some interactivity may be over-rated. Does anyone really bother to read the comments people post to news stories on newspaper or TV news websites? The posters are the same people who dominated chat rooms and killed conversation in that space.

    Is” the apparatus of two-way communication” for mass publishers like ATMs were for banks? They didn’t didn’t improve profits for banks, but you had to have them because every other bank did. Now you have white-label banks that don’t have their own ATMs, but license them from others for their customers to use.

    Has the Daily actually decided that the cost of supporting interactivity can’t be justified by measurable benefits for the publisher?

    One could say that I am justifying the value of interactivity by writing this comment, but this is in response to a blog post, not a news story. Blogs are a means of communication for a sub-group of people, even large ones. I know I really enjoyed “Dreaming in Code” and recommended it to my friends in tech, but not to anyone else. It is the fact that this interactivity is at a lower scale that makes it valuable to that interested sub-group people.

    Even with the decline in circulation and rumored disappearance of newspapers, this comment is much different than the scale of, say, of the NY Times, or even Murdoch’s NY Post (are its writers going to have their work also published on the Daily?).

    As Dennis Miller used to say, “that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.” But I would not be surprised if I was right.

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    That’s really the question, isn’t it, Wade: Whether people still want to buy the package. Agree it will be interesting to see!

    The “end of a long workday” idea strikes me as problematic today, though; just as the morning newspaper seems ancient by evening (it’s 24 hours behind the news cycle), won’t the Daily have the same problem?

  4. Peter

    you may turn out to be spot on but you must also appreciate Rupert’s attempys to protect his franchise. He’s experimenting with his own money, for the wolr to see and openly criticize. As an aside, I just read News Corp posted huge increases in net earnings despite massive MySpace losses.

  5. I produced a lot of CD-ROM media in the 90s and feel that the current crop of iPad media apps are indeed reminiscent of those days, incorporating all the limitations of a pressed disc while boasting about the bells and whistles of animations, video, audio etc.
    I wrote about this in July:

    The Daily has since then introduced a few minor ways to enable article sharing etc, but it is still very much a CD-ROM like product.
    But I applaud Murdoch for doing this, we need much more experimentation now to evolve the whole online media sector, both bud budget efforts like the Daily and small, innovative, evolving developments that are now appearing everywhere.

  6. Carolina_Norbert

    This is a product in desperate search of a market. I can read all the news I need on the Wall Street Journal’s website, CNBC, Fox News, Google News etc. This isn’t about the end of anything. It’s just a splashy launch with lots of free publicity. Hit the snooze button.

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