Why Rupert Murdoch’s bold bet on The Daily was doomed from the start

If everyone who blogged and tweeted about the demise of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper The Daily had bought a subscription, the News Corp. (s nws) venture might still be in business — but instead, it is pushing up the virtual daisies after laying off a majority of its remaining 100 staffers, according to a release on Monday from the troubled media giant. Everyone from media theorists like Jeff Jarvis to former employees of the digital newspaper has their own theories about what caused The Daily’s untimely death, including its iPad-only nature, the paywall that surrounded it, and the lackluster nature of the content. So was the venture stillborn from the start, or was it a worthwhile experiment — one that could teach other mainstream media companies some valuable lessons?

It’s easy to forget now, but when The Daily was first launched a little less than two years ago in February of 2011, there was a tremendous amount of attention paid to it. Apple’s iPad was still relatively new, and many publishers were hoping it would become a kind of magic carpet that would whisk them all out of the doldrums and into the promised land of revenue-generating digital content — and Murdoch was seen by some as leading the way. Obviously, the tablet newspaper failed to do anything of the sort, and in that sense its failure is just part of a gradual process of publishers waking up from their dream about apps.

Are tablet-only publications an impossible dream?

Reuters writer Felix Salmon, in fact, argues in a post on The Daily’s death that it proves tablet-only publications may actually be impossible:

“I think that The Daily has taught us all an important lesson — which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped… the tablet is basically just one of many ways to see material which exists on the internet; it’s not a place to put stuff which can’t be found anywhere else.”

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In many ways, the seeds of The Daily’s demise were (or perhaps should have been) fairly clear from the start: in my initial review of the app, I mentioned that the two most obvious things about it were that it ignored the web almost completely — showing anyone who came to the website via a shared link what amounted to a photograph of the relevant page from its app — and the content seemed rather disappointingly dull, in a traditional newspaper sort of way. Both of these criticisms have also been echoed by many of those who responded to its death notice on Monday.

Why did it have to be daily?

In addition to criticizing The Daily for choosing to go with a paywall for product that was unknown to most of the market it was trying to reach, journalism professor and author Jeff Jarvis says the iPad venture also took a flawed approach to news:

“Finally, there was the absolutely befuddling decision to make The Daily daily. News was only ever daily because it was forced into that limitation by the means of production and distribution of print. The internet freed us from those shackles of time. Why put them on again? Nostalgia?”

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Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic notes that The Daily failed in part because it was aimed at a “general news reader” instead of a niche, but also says it ignored the fact that media outlets no longer control the distribution of their content, regardless of whether they have an app-only approach. By divorcing the product from what Om has called the “democratization of distribution,” The Daily doomed itself, he says:

“There’s not much anyone on your Internet’s favorite websites can do aside from stick a story on the homepage, tweet/Facebook/tumble/Reddit/LinkedIn it and then pray. We do not control the distribution of our work. Period. It’s horrible and bizarre and it is also the way that the media world works now. You can’t push; the content has to pull.”

Peter Ha, an early employee at The Daily who now writes for Gizmodo, echoes this point in a post he wrote about his experience with the iPad paper. Great content, he says “doesn’t do much good if there’s no good way to share it… The Daily had every chance of flourishing and succeeding, but operating independently of the Internet as a whole was clearly a huge mistake.” And another former employee, Trevor Butterworth, summed up his view of the venture’s cause of death in a posting on his Facebook page:

“You can’t create an entirely new brand and take it behind a paywall after 4 weeks, while limiting its footprint on the Internet, and then expect people to buy it. Where was the marketing? Second, it simply added more average-reader content to a market saturated with free average-reader content.”

If you are tablet-only and paywalled, it better be good

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John Abell of Reuters also says that regardless of whether you believe an iPad-only app like The Daily could have survived, it was doomed in part because the content was so underwhelming. He writes that he “grew increasingly annoyed at the extent to which I was reading wire service copy… In other words, I couldn’t find any reason to turn to The Daily as a news brand, and that has to be the absolute baseline requirement for a publication.” Peter Kafka at All Things Digital made the same point:

“The Daily’s key issue was a conceptual one. While the app boasted lots of digital bells and whistles, in the end it was very much a general interest newspaper that seemed to be geared toward people who didn’t really like newspapers. You can’t make that work no matter what kind of platform you use.”

For his part, Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab says that despite the issues with content and the paywall and ignoring the web, he believes that the biggest issue was the structure of The Daily — in other words, its sheer size and its daily-newspaper style approach to a digital business:

“The Daily had over 100,000 paying subscribers. That ain’t nothing! With most subscribers paying $39.99 a year (others paid 99 cents a week), minus Apple’s cut, that’s around $3 million in annual revenue — and that’s before you add in advertising revenue… You can absolutely build a real online news organization on that kind of revenue. You just can’t build one that has 200 staffers. Or 150 staffers. Or 100 staffers.”

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A bold experiment, yes — but still doomed

A number of observers, including Benton, say that despite all of its flaws, Murdoch and News Corp. should be given some credit for at least experimenting with something like The Daily at a time when many newspaper companies are content to just cut costs by laying off staff. Benton said that News Corp. “made a pretty big bet on an idea. It didn’t work out. But at least they tried.” David Carr, media writer for the New York Times (which has just announced a new round of layoffs — its fourth round in five years — had a more visceral response on Twitter:

[tweet https://twitter.com/carr2n/status/275674427251908608]

In a sense then — to answer the question posed in the headline of this post — The Daily was both a bold experiment and doomed from the start. It was bold from the point of view of a major media empire with little or no understanding of the web or mobile, and a lot of other media companies without Rupert Murdoch’s deep pockets were watching it closely to see whether they should jump, and if so how to proceed. But then many of the lessons that could be learned should have been obvious even before The Daily launched: don’t ignore the web, don’t make your content platform-specific (unless it is unique), and don’t put a paywall around something no one has ever seen before.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brace