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Why The Daily Is So Yesterday

Imagine my surprise when I received personal email from someone at Rupert Murdoch’s just-announced iPad app and national news publication, The Daily, encouraging me to post “info, images, video, and more” from their news release. Those who aren’t interested in the inside baseball of new publishing ventures probably missed or ignored the announcement—after all, we’re talking about just another iPad news app, which isn’t exactly news beyond the publishing industry.

So why am I telling you about it? A few reasons. The most overarching reason is that the iPad has been hailed by some as the savior of the publishing industry. That hasn’t happened so far, with high-profile magazine apps from the likes of Wired seeing initial interest (100,000 app sales of the first edition) followed by rapidly declining sales (down to 20,000 after a few months). And Wired has been the most successful. Other magazine apps, such as GQ, are being largely ignored, according to some reports selling only a few hundred copies per issue. (Per-issue cost, lack of in-app subscriptions, lack of availability to existing subscribers, and poor usability have all factored into the weak showing so far.)

Also, in this celebrity-focused age, any move by a billionaire must be interesting, no? News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch is one of the richest and most influential men in the world, and he has nearly 60 years of experience in publishing. So if he’s willing to dump $30 million into development and $500,000 per week into publishing The Daily (according to the New York Times), it’s interesting, if only because it can’t possibly make money for some time. After all, there are only 15 million iPads out there, and, receiving $0.70 from Apple of the $0.99 per week that The Daily charges, it will have to reach 715,000 users—more than seven times as many as bought that first Wired app—just to break even on operating costs. (The Daily also accepts advertising, but that isn’t expected to be the bulk of revenue at first.)

Finally, with a few exceptions, The Daily has a business model that hasn’t been available to other publishers selling in the App Store, a recurring subscription that costs $0.99 per week or $39.99 per year. (The Wall Street Journal, another News Corp. publication, is one of the exceptions.) Steve Jobs has reportedly taken a keen personal interest in The Daily, making numerous appearances at The Daily’s Manhattan offices, and it was reported before he took medical leave that he was slated to appear on stage with Murdoch at the launch. It remains to be seen if other publications without billionaire backing will ever receive similar treatment from Apple.

So, a whizzy new iPad app, funded by the deep pockets of a publishing magnate, with Apple’s direct involvement—what’s not to like? Lots.

On the technical side, The Daily is just another news app, and it doesn’t break any significant new ground (or work on the iPhone or iPod touch, boo!). Yes, it has a Cover Flow-like browsing interface, and articles can include “interactive” elements like galleries, videos, animations, 360-degree photos, and hotspots you can tap for more info. It even has crossword puzzles and Sudoku games, and if you navigate to those pages, you’re nagged to sign into Game Center so you can “play” with other people.

The Daily demos well, but will it prove to be easy to use over time? The promotional video spends most of its time explaining how to navigate in the app. This is a problem shared by all iPad news apps; during a recent talk at Macworld Expo, Colin Crawford of Media7 Consultancy showed a slide comparing the wildly varying navigational help screens of a number of different apps. At the moment, we simply lack navigational conventions for news apps, and until they arise, readers may feel uncomfortable and stay away.

My initial foray into The Daily was tremendously frustrating, with slow swipe responses, and a long waiting period when the app downloads the day’s contents (before anything is available to read, and also when skipping to internal sections before the entire issue has arrived). At least once, I had to force quit the app to get it to bring in a new issue, and it has crashed several times. Many of my taps were ignored, in some cases due to very small hotspots (tap the tiny blue buttons!), and, in others, because of icons (like the right pointing arrow) that did nothing. Furthermore, having my navigation interrupted by ads proved not just irritating but also confusing, since the interruption broke navigation continuity (in which you arrive at the spot you’re expecting).

Some content in The Daily can’t be viewed in certain orientations, but the only hint you get—if you get one at all—when this happens is a tiny notification in the corner that says “Turn to see story.” And some articles scroll left-to-right, whereas a few pages scroll top-to-bottom. Lastly, and I expect this sort of mistake will be worked out, I quickly found pages that were just random.

On the plus side, the layout strikes me as attractive and well-suited to the iPad screen, the photos are striking, and the overall font choices work well.

Nonetheless, The Daily’s deep pockets will raise the bar for all other iPad publishing ventures. It’s certainly not a bad thing to advance the state of the art, but to do so with a massive loss leader in a field where news apps have already lost vast amounts of money smacks of trying to spend the competition into the ground, much as the United States’s 1980s military spending helped bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Of more concern is the content side. Regardless of the underlying technology, The Daily will succeed or fail based on whether or not it provides compelling content. Right now, it appears to have the sensibility of a tabloid in the skin of a news magazine, making Gossip not just one of the top six sections, but the second item after News. One of your few customization options is setting your horoscope sign—do people who own iPads really ever read horoscopes? Articles in the issues I’ve read have been short, never going beyond two iPad screens of text. It’s hard to see such an emphasis on the frivolous changing the world of journalism, at least for the better.

The Daily has been compared to USA Today, which made a splash when it debuted in 1982 with its challenges to the traditional newspaper model. The comparison may or may not prove accurate, but what The Daily won’t compete with are local newspapers. It doesn’t appear that there will be any local news, which is one of the main things that draws people to a newspaper—they want to find out what’s happening in their own community, from the viewpoint of others who have a stake in local events.

The Daily does ask for your location, which it uses for weather forecasts, something done far better by specific apps (see “WeatherBug Elite 1.0,” 4 March 2010). You can also customize the Sports section with your favorite teams—from professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey only—which adds a screen showing some recent results and headlines. Sports other than those four aren’t represented, and your settings don’t appear to change the pre-programmed content.

Pulling back even further, there’s not much wrong with The Daily if you think about it as just another random news app on the iPad. What does feel wrong, however, is that it has been presented as the Next Big Thing, and that such a large amount of effort and money has gone into creating it. To be worthy of the attention of millions of eyeballs every day, The Daily ought to transcend the digital magazine model and acknowledge notable trends in how people like to read news in the age of the Internet.

First, the concept of getting all one’s news from a single source has largely fallen by the wayside. A vast amount of news traffic today is link driven, with a particular article gaining attention for some reason, drawing tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors. But those people come for the article, not the publication, and they don’t stay to become loyal readers. We see this sort of temporary traffic spike all the time with TidBITS, when one of our articles is featured on Daring Fireball or Slashdot. There’s no question that this trend is a huge threat to publication business models, but The Daily isn’t the solution—or even a solution.

Second, link-driven traffic stems not just from aggregation sites like those I mentioned, but from social sharing. Whether via email, Twitter, or Facebook, many of us read news because it has been recommended to us by someone in our social network. The Daily does allow outgoing social recommendations from within the app, but doesn’t integrate recommended content in any way, as does the Flipboard app. That’s troublesome because part of the appeal of recommended links from friends is that they emanate from all over the Web, with a wide variety of points of view and voices. No publication can be all things to all people, and yet, The Daily seems to be trying to do just that.

Third and finally, with its single voice, The Daily completely ignores the democratization of content brought about by the rise of the Internet. Completely missing, for instance, is the work of small professional publications and bloggers, who may not be able to reach massive audiences on an individual basis, but who, in aggregate, have completely changed the journalistic playing field.

In the end, The Daily feels like just another swing at defining what an iPad news app can do, with few new ideas and mediocre usability. With shallow, wide content from a single source, it ignores the way journalism and reading has changed in the age of the Internet. It’s a pretty digital face on a publishing approach from the 1980s.

And honestly, it’s a shame. With $30 million and a direct line to Steve Jobs, The Daily could have been vastly more interesting had it provided a subscription-fueled way of disseminating the kinds of content we already read, hear, and watch in ways that enhance how we all interact on the Internet today.


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Comments about Why The Daily Is So Yesterday
(Comments are closed.)

Good article, Adam. The publishing industry seems incapable of reinventing themselves.

As for Wired's efforts, I like them very much. The problems I see with theirs is former lack of subscription capability, and PRICE. I can get their paper mag for $1 an issue or whatever. I'm not paying the prices they charge for the iPad version. And I really think that latter point is what's killing a lot of these efforts.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-02-03 14:43
That's definitely a big part of it - they're charging existing subscribers, who feel they've already paid for a lot of the content, and they're charging a lot.

To be fair, the apps cost one heck of a lot to make, and they're undoubtedly still losing money hand over fist. But sometimes you have to charge less to make more.
Michael Cohen  2011-02-03 12:56
In short, The Daily is close to being a polished delivery system for selling content. The real shortcoming is the content itself: its types, its quality, and its sources.

Packaging is easy, content is hard.
David Blatner  2011-02-03 12:58
You nailed it exactly right, Adam. I'm deeply underwhelmed.
My reaction was much like yours, but I can summarize it in three letters: meh.
dswift  2011-02-03 19:31
In short, the concept of an "issue" is dead.

The inclusion of horoscopes sums up their cluelessness.

I predict they'll hemorrhage cash for a year and bring in Roger Ailes for a Full Wingnut Hail Mary.
Rob Lewis  2011-02-07 20:55
LOL! Murdoch is, what? eighty something years old? He makes this sexagenarian feel like a whippersnapper. Obviously he doesn't get it.
Remember Einstein: you can't solve a problem in the same mindset that created the problem.
I still like the idea of an issue, in preference to a continuous stream. (Maybe TidBITS has the right compromise in this respect.) But it's got to be a well thought out and well designed package, and The Daily isn't it, as Adam says.
John Baxter  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-02-03 21:25
I liked the Thursday issue of The Daily more than the debut issue. I will likely subscribe at least for a while.

I grew up with yesterday's news (Los Angeles Times) or a little of early-today's news (Pasadena Star News) and last week's news (Time, Newsweek). (I've since learned that Los Angeles Times was more slanted and big company (Southern Pacific RR) driven that I had known.)

I like the idea of reporters and editors taking their time about getting a story somewhat right, rather than relying on reader comments to fix it up after publishing. (TidBITS strikes a good balance here.)

(And editing and fact checking go only so far: "Dewey Defeats Truman"--Newsweek fluffing WMD purportedly (but not) used against Isreal early in Gulf War I. Both deadline things.)

Younger people (almost everyone) seem to have different expectations, and that's going to hurt The Daily.
John Baxter  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-02-03 21:26
Not to mention growing up with who-knows-when news: MovieTone.
Bob White  2011-02-04 11:32
It will surely fail for several reasons….

It is very incomplete, e.g. there is a lot more news out there than what it presents.

It is very hard to follow the news, e.g. it is not organized for easy reading.

It is unappealing to gray hairs like myself who have read paper news for, let's say, 50 or 60 years are used to seeing things like box scores side by side with game articles (as an example).

But then I have checked out many of the iPad "magazines" and "newspapers" as they came out and I have the same critique for most of them. And the very few that were good want as many dollars as they do for a paper copy mailed to you. Ridiculous!
Jim Hunkins  2011-02-08 08:10
I have just started reading the Daily but so far I find it pretty well done. Not perfect mind you but it is a 1.0.
The tone of this article on the other hand is almost as if you thought it was going to be terrible so you looked for every issue possible. There are some good things in here and lots of potential; why was the emphasis only on the negative in this review?
I would say give it a chance. 2 weeks of trial will allow myself and others to have an opinion on the content quality and variety and 99 cents a week will allow us to sample for longer to see if it improves as it likely will.
Other item, again this is aimed at the masses and not at the techno geeks (of which I am). The flavor is more general than technical which matches the audience.
I will grant one thing, wish they had a technical news section too - and I bet it will be added.
So, give it time before ragging on it. A good start with lots of potential. If it looks the same in 2 months - then go after them then :)
Dennis B. Swaney  2011-02-08 10:02
Have you looked at PressReader? It has lots of local papers for those not enslaved by the major media out of NYC, DC, L.A., S.F., etc. Plus you can get international, non-English language papers for a more universal view.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-02-08 14:55
Enslaved? Don't know how many of those local papers you've read recently, but last time I checked the content of mine, about 80% of the news was taken from the AP and those same "major media" who do most of the actual, expensive reporting on national issues.
Dennis B. Swaney  2011-02-08 22:41
I tend to ignore the national & international news in my paper; I subscribe for the more important things like local news, events, and of course, the comics (even if "Peanuts" is buried on the last page of the classifieds). I've already watched the "propaganda" feeds like CNN, FNC, CBS, ABC, NBC the night before, and can sample them during the day online. However, to clarify, I should have had the word "readers" between "... those" and "not ..."
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-02-08 11:30
I haven't seen PressReader yet, no, but I'll check it out.
Eolake Stobblehouse  2011-02-08 16:53
Where is this Good Writing they're trying to save, anyway? When I see good writing, it's not in a newspaper!
iChroma  2011-02-21 14:17
You rightly give reasons why The Daily is 'So Yesterday'. So is its proprietor, whose baleful influence on print and public broadcast media continues apace. New Corp has recently been given additional time to re-jig its bid to take full control of BSkyB, further reducing the plurality of UK media outlets. Still, it remains a bit strange that Mr Jobs should think it advantageous to curry favour with Chairman M. Looking forward to The Daily's robust critique of the employment practices of some of Apple's suppliers?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-08-03 17:38
Looks like The Daily may become even more irrelevant.