Rupert Murdoch is putting $30 million and 100 journalists behind an iPad newspaper called "The Daily." He even has support from Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But no one really believes this thing will last. Here's why.
Murdoch has taken to the iPad project with a zeal not seen since he grossly overpaid for The Wall Street Journal in order to have a prestigious, national newspaper to play with. The News Corp. chairman loves the iPad and Apple's charismatic, tightly wound CEO Steve Jobs, who is rumored to be co-hosting The Daily's launch and who might, we hear, even bundle the app with new iPads. Murdoch has installed as The Daily's editor News Corp. golden boy Jesse Angelo—grade-school chum of Murdoch heir apparent James Murdoch, son of media investor John Angelo, and former managing editor of the News Corp.-owned New York Post. The Daily is quite literally a dream of Murdoch's: It came to him in a 2am vision during a restless night in his Fifth Avenue penthouse.
All of which is to say Murdoch can't be enjoying the coverage of his newspaper of the future. Every media pundit seems to have his own pet reason or two (or three or four or five) why The Daily will flop. Stitch those arguments together and you've got a veritable wall of skepticism—one that seems well founded.
It's slow and backward
The Daily will be put to bed each night for consumption the next day, just like a newspaper. As David Carr put it in the New York Times, "a button will be pushed and it will be 'printed' for the next morning." That decidedly retro delivery model might sound appealing for Murdoch, a newspaper sentimentalist whose overpaid for the Journal by several billion dollars, but it's going to seem poky for a generation of Facebook readers who tend to want read yesterday's news yesterday, not today. As Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg wrote, "Wonderful! Slower news—and at a higher price."
The content is unfocused
Like an old-fashioned newspaper, The Daily will try and cover everything. Music writer Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker is on board, as are a handful of veterans of News Corp.-owned papers, like Richard Johnson, Chris Wilson and Justin Rocket Silverman of the Post and Pete Picton of the Sun. Other hires include ex-Politico reporter Avi Zenilman and Hunter Walker, formerly of the entertainment website The Wrap. There will be people writing about politics, crime and society. Quaintly, there will even be an a dedicated opinion section.
That broad scope might be workable for 100 journalists if there were some aggregation going on — some borrowing and sharing work done by others — but the vast majority of The Daily's content is supposed to be original.
News Corp. sucks at the internet
Murdoch's past online efforts constitute a long series of defeats. News Corp.'s greatest misses include MySpace, bought for $580 million in 2005 before the pioneering social network was surpassed by Facebook, bled money and users, and eventually surrendered its original mission to try and become an online media sharing hub.
There's the New York Post, home to one of the most persistently terrible websites in the business as well as an extremely short lived spinoff called PageSix.com. Then there's the recent paywalling of the Times of London, which NYU's Clay Shirky calculates has brought down web traffic around 97 percent, attracting 40,000 dedicated subscribers at best.
The business model is extremist
On the iPad, no one has proven you can make money selling news, even without 100 seasoned (read: expensive) journalists to feed. In fact, Apple's top-selling iPad app chart is consistently dominated by games, which made up six of the top ten this past week. News apps that sell well tend to fall quickly back to Earth; Wired's iPad debut sold 100,000 copies before falling dramatically to below 30,000, where they have remained. That's for a magazine with a print circulation of 750,000.
The Daily hopes to attract about 17 times as many iPad buyers as Wired. No wonder: At 99 cents per week, the newspaper will generate only $5.1 million in subscription revenue for every 100,000 subscribers—minus Apple's cut, typically around 30 percent. Murdoch's newsroom expenses alone should easily run north of $7 million.
There are certainly examples of successful paid content on the web, including News Corp.'s own WSJ.com. But The Daily isn't a website; it's an app, available only to iPad owners who pay for a subscription to it. Which brings us to another problem.
It's a ghetto
Since The Daily is an iPad app, there will be no inbound links, and reportedly no outbound links to the web, either. And there will be no web version. That isolation instantly kneecaps the paper's ability to promote itself; the web will convert The Daily's big scoops into blog summaries, tweets, Facebook rants and even iPad screenshots — but not into traffic for the publication that generated the buzz in the first place.
Being walled off will hurt not only The Daily but its readers, too, who expect, as Rosenberg puts it, "news that you can respond to, link to, share with friends." As web inventor Tim Berners Lee recently wrote, "walled gardens, no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates."
The alternatives are cheaper and smarter
If you want to read newspaper-like content on your iPad, there are tons of free options available through your web browser: The Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, the BBC, Slate, HuffPo, take your pick. And if you want your news with a nifty, iPad-native interface, there are plenty of options for that too, including aggregation software like Reeder, Instapaper, Flipboard and Pulse, cheap or free apps that can be stuffed to the gills with an amazing variety of content, gratis, and connected to your social graph in all kinds of interesting ways. As ZDNet's Sam Diaz wrote, "there's already original content all over the Internet."
No tech talent
A winning iPad newspaper, were it to exist, would be more than a bucket of content; it would be an interesting app, too. But all the boldface names around The Daily are media people: Newspaperman Angelo; his college friend Greg Clayman from MTV Networks; and a trio of managing editors from newspapers and TV. Clayman, at least, was on Viacom's digital side, and one of the managing editors did a stint at AOL News.
But what Murdoch is missing, or not savvy enough to put forward to the media, are top managers with real engineering chops. Someone with, say, Google on his resumé. Or Apple, Twitter, or Facebook—or at least Microsoft or Yahoo.
Instead, all of the news out of The Daily is about the steady stream of journalists being recruited to work there. Print journalists haven't seen a gravy train/vocational life raft of this scale since Portfolio, an even more hubristic launch ($100 million!). It's all too easy to imagine The Daily ending up like Si Newhouse's shuttered business magazine—or like Harvey Weinstein similarly disastrous foray into unfamiliar media.
The Daily looks like a dumb, risky bet — especially if you tune in to the growing chorus of well argued critics. But here's some fodder for contrarians:
Steve Jobs is on Murdoch's side
Both the Guardian and blogger John Gruber have reported that Jobs will join Murdoch on stage for The Daily's launch. We've also heard scuttlebutt that Murdoch expects Apple to eventually bundle the publication with iPads. Apple has not previously bundled third-party apps with either the iPad or iPhone, but The Daily gives the tech company an incentive to change that: The app will be among the first to support a new subscription billing option from Apple's iTunes Store, meaning Jobs & Co. will get a share of subscribers' recurring fees.
The iPad is exploding
iPad sales are estimated to total roughly 15 million by the end of this year and, optimists believe, 40 million in 2011. As a source told the Guardian, "If only 5% of those 40 million subscribe to the Daily, that's already two million customers." Fantasy math is fun! It would be even more fun if this iPad newspaper were compatible with the iPhone, which would more than quadrupling the number of compatible devices.
Fox News seemed pointless, too
Now gushing more than half a billion dollars in annual profits, Fox News Channel spent several years in the red after launching in 1996 and before honing its conservative voice. As CJR said, "Murdoch ... [has] got the capital to keep a money-losing operation going for quite a while-as Fox News was- ...while he waits for the iPad market and all his potential readers to catch up." Or to leave him further in the dust.
Not all iPad magazines founder
Oprah's glossy debuted at number six on Apple's paid apps chart this week. And Wired might have held on to its initial 100,000 iPad readers had its debut offering been stronger. We're still waiting for any iPad publication to show lasting success, though.