The Daily is dead, but not for the reasons you might think
And now watch as “media observers” launch a fusillade of "I told you sos" at Rupert Murdoch and the failed Daily. Just hours after News Corp. announced this morning that it is shuttering its iPad-only news publication, plenty of people are already telling us what went wrong. Gawker didn't even wait for The Daily to close up shop, publishing a prescient analysis of its impending demise before it published its first edition.
Let’s wheel back to February 2011, when The Daily launched with optimistic visions and a bold attempt to take advantage of a completely new platform. The iPad was still relatively new, and many apps were still iPhone clones that were blown up for the 10-inch screen. No one was really sure whether it was going to kill old media or save it. So News Corp’s decision to take a $30 million-a-year, 120-person bet on an iPad-only title took courage. Keep that in mind as you read the moralizing blog posts, chin-scratching columns, and Tweet-sermons from the leather elbow patches rocking in their armchairs while they survey Rupert Murdoch’s wreckage.
And remember, it did make sense at the time. We were all excited about the iPad’s ability to deliver interactive features, rich media, and living stories in real time, and to be able to charge for it. Real money! At a dark time for newspapers, the idea of an iPad-only publication was a flicker of light.
Now we know, however, that The Daily made some big mistakes. The Media soothsayers may tell you that it’s because it was trapped in a walled garden, that it lacked a defined audience, and that its journalism was too lightweight. But these are not the core reasons it went belly up.
For a start, lightweight journalism hasn’t stopped tabloid publications, from the New York Post to the Daily Mail, attracting large audiences (and, it should be noted, the Post loses tens of millions of dollars a year but is allowed, at Murdoch’s behest, to survive). Plus, you can’t read a story like this one on a Florida shooting and tell me it is of demonstrably lower quality than something that the AP would have produced. Of course, that has always been one of The Daily’s challenges -- attracting people to read news in an app at a time when news is so commoditized and available freely and abundantly elsewhere. A challenge? Yes. But on its own enough to kill The Daily? No.
News Corp says The Daily had more than 100,000 readers. That’s not something to write home about, but it’s not pathetic. It’s comparable to the circulation of a daily newspaper in a mid-sized US city. In fact, given that The Daily is a paid app and has been around for less than two years, it’s almost respectable. The problem The Daily had, however, is that it needed to pull in a lot more readers and revenue than that to support its expensive team.
At the time of launch, Rupert Murdoch said it needed at least 500,000 subscribers to be financially viable. That’s a gargantuan target for what was effectively a no-name startup trying to play in a totally new media environment, and when hardly anyone owned a tablet in the first place. Simply put, The Daily never attracted the revenue required to support a team of 120 people. Launching what amounted to a digital daily newspaper with many of the legacy costs and structures of print wasn't the best idea. (You could argue The New York Times, which just announced that is seeking buy outs from 30 newsroom staff, faces a similar dilemma. Its print edition is not making enough to support its gargantuan newsroom either.)
Then there’s the argument that the publication, being iPad-oriented, was trapped in a dead-end digital zone. But the walled garden shouldn’t necessarily be a problem. As Instapaper founder Marco Arment has proven with The Magazine, it’s possible to start a financially viable publication from scratch and keep the walls up around it. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman has confidently pronounced that the tablet-only approach was doomed to failure.
“Research has since shown that tablet owners are 'digital omnivores' who consume media seamlessly across tablets, smartphones, PCs and print publications,” Sonderman says. “To serve them news on only one platform is not satisfying.”
That might be true, but it’s not the cause of The Daily’s death. The Magazine, for instance, is available only on the iPhone and the iPad, and only for users of iOS6. If I were starting a publication today, I would make it available on every digital platform possible (you know, just like PandoDaily) – but that doesn’t mean that an iPad-only platform just won’t work. We are still at the beginning of the tablet’s life cycle, but already people are shifting their reading habits to the device. As tablets become only more widespread and ever cheaper, that trend is likely to accelerate. There are now plenty enough iPad owners who could support a sufficiently lightweight editorial product. But therein lies the thrust of this argument.
The difference between The Daily and The Magazine is perhaps where the real lesson is to be found. The Daily started with more than 100 staffers and a multi-million-dollar budget. The Magazine started with one employee – Arment himself – and no funding. Rather than try to jump straight into the deep end with a high-powered, high-profile, and highly expensive editorial team, Arment decided to start small and lite, eschewing all the bells and whistles to focus on building an audience through the delivery of quality journalism for a fair price. The Daily was a $4-a-month multimedia experience and asked readers to come back every day, while expecting advertisers to help pay staffing costs. The Magazine has no ads, is text-only, and has been testing the market before it makes any crazy moves like, say, adding pictures. It costs $3 a month.
The Daily, in other words, jumped straight to bloat, while The Magazine epitomizes the Lean Startup approach. My boss, Sarah Lacy – whom I wisely agree with – suggests that one approach for old media organizations should be to take a handful of their smartest people, overpay them, and put them on the equivalent of a desert island, completely outside the main organization. Then, tell them they will get huge bonuses if they can figure out how to make the print side obsolete. It’s trying to building something new out of the old, Lacy reckons, that never seems to work.
The Daily had its fair share of shortcomings. Perhaps because of its tablet-centricity, it wasn’t able to have a very vibrant life outside of the iPad and missed out on a lot of the social sharing that helps spread content and brand to a wide audience (ie, the Buzzfeed model). It amassed a reasonable readership in a short time, but it fell far short of attracting the huge readership needed to sustain itself. And for whatever reason – a failure of marketing? – it didn’t stamp itself on the collective consumer consciousness as a serious news alternative.
But let’s not dance on its grave. A lot of good journalists are out of a job today, and a bold experiment in digital news has failed. The Daily is dead, but just by existing it did the rest of the media world a favor. Now it has been relegated to case study, but it's all the more valuable for it.