HuffPo, The Daily and the flawed iPad content model

A little over a month ago, The Huffington Post (s aol) launched an ambitious project with much fanfare: a weekly magazine app for the iPad called Huffington, which users could download for 99 cents an issue or $19.99 for a year’s worth. The demand for this new format seems to have been underwhelming, however, since the new-media giant says it is dropping the fee and will make the app free of charge to download. Meanwhile, another media giant — News Corp. (s nws) — has laid off dozens of staff at its iPad newspaper The Daily, and there continue to be rumors that the entire operation could be in jeopardy. Are these two isolated cases, or a sign that cracks are starting to show in the content model that publishers have bought into with the iPad?

According to a report at Capital New York, the executive editor of Huffington magazine — former New York Times editor Tim O’Brien — told the publication’s staff at an all-hands meeting this week that the company had decided its content should be free of charge. As writer Joe Pompeo notes, this was the original concept for the magazine to begin with, in part because it was originally seen as a collection of existing content from the Huffington Post website, presented in a different format. As it took shape, however, the site decided to create custom content and that made it seem worthwhile to charge a subscription fee. As O’Brien put it at the time:

“We feel it’s a premium product and it deserves to carry a price with it in order to access all the value we’re giving people.”

Although a Huffington Post spokesman told Capital New York that the company was “thrilled” with the reception the app has gotten (O’Brien apparently told the staff meeting that it has had been downloaded 115,000 times) it couldn’t have been all that thrilling, or the AOL unit would presumably have continued charging for it. The spokesman said asking users for money “was inconsistent with the Huffington Post itself, which has never charged for content,” and that could be part of the problem — i.e, a mismatch between what readers have come to think of as the HuffPo’s core brand value (namely, free content) and the new magazine app.

I think there is more to it than just that, however. As I’ve tried to argue before in posts about the HuffPo launch and the all-in-one magazine newsstand offered by Next Issue Media, I think dedicated magazine or even newspaper apps in many cases don’t jibe with the way that increasing numbers of people consume content.

Dedicated apps don’t fit the way content works any more

Whether media companies like it or not (and they mostly don’t), much of the news and other content we consume now comes via links shared through Twitter and Facebook (s fb) and other networks, or through old-fashioned aggregators — such as Yahoo News (s yhoo) or Google News (s goog) — and newer ones like Flipboard and Zite and Prismatic that are tailored to mobile devices and a socially-driven news experience. Compared to that kind of model, a dedicated app from a magazine or a newspaper looks much less interesting, since by design it contains content from only a single outlet, and it usually doesn’t contain helpful things like links.

The Daily suffers from this problem and plenty of others, in my view. Not only is it content from a single entity, but it doesn’t even offer a website where readers can find or easily share that content — and while that may have looked to some observers like an ambitious bet on a mobile-only model when the paper launched, for many readers I expect it is merely a hassle. Publishing veteran Jean-Louis Gassee Frédéric Filloux put it well in a post at The Monday Note about The Daily’s flaws, saying:

“It is everything and nothing special at the same time. It’s not a tabloid, but it doesn’t carry in-depth, enterprise journalism either. It’s a sophisticated container for commodity news — i.e. the news that you can get everywhere, in real-time and for free.”

Now The Daily has laid off almost a third of its staff, as my paidContent colleague Laura Owen reported earlier this week, and there continue to be reports that the lifespan of the digital-only newspaper could be short — especially since News Corp. is going through a somewhat tumultuous restructuring that will see the media assets severed from the entertainment assets. The fact that The Daily has only managed to sell 100,000 or so subscriptions in the 18 months since it launched (compared with the 500,000 that News Corp. said it would need to break even on the publication) certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.

The dream that many publishers seemed to have was that the iPad would create a market for their individual apps, and that legions of readers would happily download and pay for them, creating a brand new stream of significant revenue. With a few exceptions, however — such as The New York Times and other publications that have strong brands or are targeted at a very specific market — that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some publishers, like Jason Pontin of MIT’s Technology Review, are waking up from that dream, but whether anyone else takes the hint remains to be seen.