The Daily’s Demise: Another Secret Sauce For The News Business Dries Up

by Rob Pegoraro on December 4, 2012

The Daily leaves this world as it entered it: with an overload of analysis and opinion in competing media sources.

Back in early 2011, News Corporation’s iPad-publishing debut got all that ink and all those pixels for its big-name backing… and the flood of page views you could expect from the crazy reader interest in anything related to Apple.

But even then, News Corp.’s digital competence could not be judged certain after its already-doomed $580 million purchase of MySpace (later dumped for $35 million). And The Daily wasn’t the first high-profile iPad publication either; Flipboard launched the summer before in a wave of hype.

The glut of Daily autopsies since the news broke Monday morning point to different causes of death, all worth pondering.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal argued that this app’s disconnection from the Web broke the feedback loop of incoming links.

Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber said the Daily’s iPad app was too buggy, especially at first, and that its newsroom cost too much to run.

Instapaper developer Marco Arment–who recently launched an iOS-only magazine devoted to “meaningful editorial and big-picture articles”–called out The Daily’s lack of compelling stories.

Slate’s Jack Shafer said News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, distracted by the company’s phone-hacking scandal, didn’t give The Daily enough time.

At The Next Web, Alex Wilhelm observed that surrendering 30 cents of every iOS subscription dollar to Apple could have ruled out profitability.

Journalism professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis wrote that The Daily took too long to make itself available on other mobile platforms. (The Daily somehow thought it could limit its Android distribution to Amazon’s Appstore and tablets sold by Verizon Wireless.)

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton cited all of the above.

(Disclosure: I made some inquiries about doing freelance work for The Daily but didn’t follow up.)

There are sufficient lessons here for anybody who would build a news tablet app. But there’s also an unpleasant reminder for the traditional media: You shouldn’t expect anybody to cook up some secret sauce that heals your business-model problems.

I’ve seen enough of that wishful thinking in my time at a newspaper and since leaving it. I understand; it’s tempting to think you’re only one decision away from righting the ship. But it doesn’t help.

For a while, people wished papers could undo their “original sin” of offering their work for free on the Web. If only we could wind back the clock! (While you’re in that time machine, please reverse the indulgent ’90s-era spending of many large papers.)

Then the iPad was supposed to save the business, restoring the traditional reading experience and making it easy to charge for a subscription.

After Apple levied its usual 30 percent commission on subscriptions sold through iOS apps, Facebook became the next would-be savior. What if frictionless sharing would generate a torrent of social-media referrals and so crack the code for online profitability?

Except “social reader” apps proved to be a bother and a bore for others on Facebook, leading to a steep tumble from which they have yet to recover.

And now, setting up a paywall, along the lines of what the New York Times seems to have done successfully, is supposedly the minimum for a successful news operation. That might actually work–if you can convince readers, especially your biggest fans and most loyal readers, that they get value they didn’t before.

But while there’s one root cause for all of this trouble–the Internet’s efficiency has flattened the price of a single story to zero, exactly as it’s done for other forms of media–there is no one solution. It’s likely to be a lot of little things, and you may see them work first at newer sites that don’t have to get over losing a business model that worked for decades.

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