Tablet Journalism: Can Rupert Murdoch’s iPad Adventure Save the News Business?

Sorry for the sensational headline. I couldn’t help myself. Talking about the future of journalism just gets me fired up, I guess.

Anyway, the answer, of course, is no. Rupert Murdoch’s new initiative, called The Daily, can’t save journalism in an Internet era when advertising rates have declined and everyone wants to get their content for free. But now that the iPad-only newspaper has launched, I find myself far more intrigued and energized by it than I had expected to be. You can bet that editors and designers at older publications are dissecting the app as we speak, and figuring out how to go The Daily one better. The upshot is that we’re going to see a lot of experimentation in the news business over the next couple of years, and that’s exciting.

The fun started on Groundhog Day, when Murdoch and the publication’s executive staff unveiled The Daily at a news conference in New York. The free app, developed by Murdoch’s News Corporation at a cost of $30 million, is a vehicle for something untried in the annals of journalism: a general-interest news operation built entirely around the Apple iPad.

If you’re wondering why someone would start a major daily newspaper that can only be read by people who’ve shelled out $499 to $829 for an iPad, then you may not have heard that Apple shipped 17 million of the things in 2010 and will likely sell tens of millions more this year. That’s a pretty large “addressable market,” as a VC might say. If just 500,000 iPad owners decide they’re willing to pay $0.99 a week for a subscription to The Daily, the operation will be profitable. (That’s based on Murdoch’s statement at the launch event that The Daily is “running at a cost of less than half a million a week,” and it assumes that The Daily will sell no advertisements at all—which it already has.)

Plus, the publication will eventually be available on all major tablets, according to Murdoch. With every major electronics manufacturer rushing to enter the market Apple has opened up, worldwide tablet shipments are expected to climb to more than 70 million in 2012. So let’s just dispense with the question about whether The Daily makes sense as a business proposition. If it doesn’t now, it soon will.

The Q&A portion of Wednesday’s launch event was interesting to watch, because you could just see the journalists in the room squirming inside. As they probed for flaws in the concept, you could tell that they were all wondering what Murdoch’s gambit might mean for their own publications—approximately none of which were created with tablets in mind.

For most publications, even digital-only ones, “online” means the Web, e-mail, and RSS. The publications big enough to be able to afford it—CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, GQ, Vanity Fair—have built their own iPad apps. But for the most part, these apps are weak reflections of their parent publications, with an incomplete selection of content, uninspiring design, and interfaces that make limited use of the iPad’s capabilities. That’s why startups like Flipboard and Alphonso Labs (makers of Pulse) have been able to find hundreds of thousands of users for iPad apps that make other organizations’ content prettier and more navigable (Flipboard just surpassed 1 million users, actually).

What Murdoch realized is that big, established publications may still be the kings of content, but they aren’t very quick to reinvent themselves when new distribution technologies emerge. Ten years down the road, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times will have shut down their printing presses and will be universally read on tablets, or e-paper, or retinal implants, or whatever we’re using by then. But The Daily is there now. It doesn’t have to repurpose or transcode anything, because News Corp built the 100-employee newsroom from the ground up to generate tablet-friendly content and array it in touchscreen-friendly ways.

What do I mean? Well, you’ll know all this if you already have the app, but The Daily is covering the astonishing social revolutions underway in Egypt and other Arab countries with an immersive combination of video reports, narrative text from a reporter on the ground, audio interviews, and dramatic full-screen photographs (some of which are so large they can be “explored” by zooming and panning). Many articles have full-page opening spreads with clever, sometimes animated illustrations. Many images are “touchable,” supplemented with pop-up graphics. There are interactive polls—I was in the minority in a poll asking whether “cutting carbon emissions” or “investing in green technology” is more important—it was 22 percent to 78 percent, respectively.

Sports fans should especially love The Daily, as the sports section is where the designers and animators seem to have lavished the most attention. The app’s Super Bowl preview yesterday included a 360-degree photo taken inside Cowboys Stadium and an interactive timeline of all 44 previous Super Bowls. For puzzle fans, there’s even an interactive crossword and a sudoku puzzle. (No comics though.)

While the actual reporting in The Daily isn’t as deep or as level-headed as what you might find in the New York Times, I find that the overall package, especially for the lead stories, is far more informative. That’s because I’m one of those people who Murdoch described at the launch event: educated and informed, but unlikely ever to pick up a print newspaper or watch a TV news show. On occasion, I’ve worried that my lack of a TV habit means I’m cut off from the big news stories—I don’t recall seeing a single video on the Gulf oil spill or the Chilean mine disaster, for example. For me, The Daily’s offerings could help fill this gap, by offering a genuinely multimedia experience on the platform I’m already using for most of my information-gathering.

All of that said, there’s plenty about The Daily that needs work. The app takes too long to load new content (even over Wi-Fi). Interactive features are often sluggish, and the app has crashed on me several times in the last two days. The writing feels a little too bloggy, the editing rushed; one article about Silicon Valley darling Quora, for example, spelled co-founder Charlie Cheever’s name two different ways. I’m not sure why I expect more from The Daily, but maybe it has something to do with the beautiful packaging. It feels like a magazine, so I expect magazine-level copyediting.

And there’s another, more complicated issue: how The Daily relates to the rest of the information universe. At the launch event, The Daily’s editors claimed that articles would include hyperlinks to outside Web content, but I’ve only found a couple. And forget rich Web-style hyperlinking from within the text itself—in that respect, at least, The Daily is like an old-fashioned magazine.

You can share an article from The Daily from within the app via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail. If you do that, your tweet or post or message will include a link to a Web-based version of the article. Bizarrely, however, this Web content is not reachable from The Daily’s own website. Article headlines are indexed by the search engines, and screen shots of the articles can be reached via search result links from Google, Bing, et al.—but The Daily has deliberately avoided creating a navigation structure that would allow non-iPad users to browse, copy, or comment on the articles.* Everything is designed to keep you inside the app, where News Corp knows you’re paying for the content (or soon will be—everything at The Daily is free for the first two weeks, courtesy of Verizon). As Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg puts it, “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.”

Exactly. In fact, The Daily is far more like a paper magazine—pre-packaged and self-contained—than it is like the Web. This may be a necessary compromise if news publications hope to create sustainable business models in the post-print era. But it’s definitely a departure from the wonderful media free-for-all that we’ve enjoyed over the past decade as one publication after another has given up on pay walls and simply dumped all of its content onto the Internet for free.

Personally, I’m glad that at least one company has taken this leap—and it makes sense that it would be News Corp, given that its Wall Street Journal is the only paper that has managed to impose online subscription fees without losing readers. I’m not sure how I would feel if the entire news industry went in this same direction. But we’ve got to try something, and The Daily is an interesting start.

*Addendum: Naturally, someone has already hacked together an unauthorized, external index to The Daily’s Web content.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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7 responses to “Tablet Journalism: Can Rupert Murdoch’s iPad Adventure Save the News Business?”

  1. rick sass says:

    You raise some very valid and interesting points about The Daily, and I must confess I have not seen it yet. But I have read a great deal about it (for free, online :-)), and I was in the print business for more than 25 years including more than 20 with industry leader USA Today (in circulation/distribution by the way).

    While I admire Mr. Murdoch’s efforts and spunk, let’s take a look realistically at the core issue here: can The Daily get Ipad and other tablet-device users to plunk down $.99 per week for digital content they largely can get for free elsewhere? And if they can, will they be able to grow a “circulation” base of 200k-500k daily users? USA Today at its peak hit 2.2M daily “purchasers”, more than a third of whom did not really realize they were purchasing the product. Assuming Mr. Murdoch can get “sponsors” to agree to similar “third-party” purchases, he may have a chance (although I’m not even convinced of that likelihood).

    But the bigger issue is who is likely to go the “true purchase” route, vs. who has purchased (and will continue to purchase) the Ipad and similar devices. It’s not the 50+ year-old traditional news-consumers. It’s the tech savvy gen-x and gen-y folks more interested in Itunes and cool video game apps. And let’s be honest, as compelling as The Daily’s content might be to “newsies”, that is not the crowd who live their lives through Ipads and other digital devices. I frankly don’t see the draw for younger users. And without that draw, there is no chance of success. Period.

    So can Mr. Murdoch build a base “circulation” of 200k-500k “younger” users/buyers (although I’m betting true sustainability lies north of 700k – which, by the way is larger than the circulation of every US print newspaper not named USA Today, WSJ or New York Times) and keep those numbers? I frankly don’t see it happening with a product like this one. It’s not cool enough!

    And from everything I have read about this new venture, the content simply is not that compellingly good in comparison to what is available for (drumroll please) FREE. It is the newspapers themselves, coupled with Google, Yahoo, and all of the other free online news sites that sink this venture. The one thing Mr. Murdoch has going for him is very deep pockets and a will/desire/ego to see this thing succeed.

    In my experience it rarely is the first product out of the blocks that ultimately wins the race. Unless Mr. Murdoch finds a “Willie Wonka” draw out there somewhere. And we know from experience that readers who come onboard that way will not stick unless the content is truly compelling. I wish Mr. Murdoch and his team luck, but suspect they will need a lot more than luck and spunk to succeed.