Postmortem on the Daily

Writing on Reuters, Felix Salmon has a good postmortem on the demise of the Daily, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only, $30,000,000 subscription-based newspaper, which folded yesterday. Among other things, he writes about print media's enthusiasm for iPads, and the inability of closed ecosystems to out-iterate the open Web:

When the iPad was first announced, there were lots of dreams about what it could achieve, and how rich its content could be. But in hindsight, it’s notable how many of the dreamers came from the world of print. Web people tended to be much less excited about the iPad than print people were, maybe because they knew they already had something better. The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time...

Similarly, when the iPad launched, it allowed people to do things they could never do with a print publication: watch videos, say. But at the same time the experience was still inferior to what you could get on the web, which iterates and improves incrementally every day. The iPad then stayed still — the technology behind iPad publications is basically the same as it was two years ago — even as the web, in its manner, predictably got better and better.

I was skeptical of the iPad for this reason from the start:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who'll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of "content" isn't just that they can get it for free, though: it's that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

The impossibility of tablet-native journalism (via Making Light)


  1. Not too surprisingly, John Gruber has a slightly different interpretation of the failure of The Daily:

    Personally, I think there’s lots of reasons, but I think Gruber’s probably closer to the truth than Salmon in this case.

  2. it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free

    Yes I think that is most of the reason actually. There is more than enough casual entertainment in the reddit new queue to keep me interested all day. I no longer buy newspapers for that reason.


    But surely this bit:

    News apps, it has become clear, are unwieldy and clunky things. Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened

    Is an implementation detail. It is a dumb approach which doesn’t scale, so why was it done that way?

    1. “…It’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too”

      Yep, bingo!  We have a winner!

    2. Background data-slurping is murder on both your battery and your cellular quota, if any. iOS frowns on it.

      Now, why they didn’t take that design constraint into account is left as a mystery for the ages…

      1. I don’t see how a guaranteed download of the full paper could consume *less* data or power than a progressive download which might not (designed correctly, surely will not) ever download the whole thing.

        1. I don’t think I made my (intended) point clear: on a PC, you don’t tend to think of yourself as power or bandwidth constrained, within limits, so the best user experience is to have your program grab everything that might be useful when the system is otherwise idle, so that the user will have nice, snappy, local access when they start the program up.

          On a mobile device, the ‘just throw power and bandwidth at it’ solution is largely forbidden, mobile OSes are quite stingy about what they’ll let you do in the background, so you must build something that loads in reasonable time starting from when the user opens it.

          In the case of The Daily, they built a system where you had to download a huge chunk before you could start(which they could have gotten away with on the PC) but shoved it into a mobile environment where aggressive preloading is far less doable.

      2. Newsstand apps do take it into account, they can download content at night in the background, when you have your device on Wi-Fi, and probably being charged.  The idea is to update content for you and have it on-device, so you can read on the subway, etc. or other places without connectivity. Web-connected news apps suck when there’s no connection.

        Now, whether they used that feature is something I don’t know. But, a well-designed app could certainly balance things between up to the moment data and the vast portion of a newspaper that is not time-limited.

  3. Yes, Salmon is flatly incorrect in claiming that the limitations of The Daily are caused by iPad technical limitations. iPad programming has a web view. It can do what the web can do.

    1. Exactly. Salmon doesn’t have the technical skills to support his argument; claiming that native apps can’t do what web-apps can do is the exact opposite of the truth.

      My suspicion is that he’s familiar with what Adobe’s infamous magazine publishing suite is capable of (or rather _not_ capable of) and somehow imagines that those are limitations of the entire iOS platform, which is absurd.

      At a bare minimum you can easily build an iOS (or Android) app that splats up a full-screen UIWebView and runs a local web-app in it. It would be just like a website except it can serve the content locally, which makes it work offline and makes paywalls easier to enforce. A competent iOS developer could build something like that in a few weeks. From there you can get more complicated and go to town adding all kinds of capabilities that would be difficult or impossible for a website.

      I never read The Daily, but from what I heard about it, the software sucked. Instead take a look at The Magazine, a low-profile new iOS-only periodical from the developer of Instapaper, that shows you can do quality content and a nice minimal UI on a shoestring.

      1. As of 4.3, only Safari got to use the Nitro JS JIT, while web-wrap-apps poked along behind. Did they eventually clear that up, or is that delta still in place?

        1. That limitation is still there (it’s a kernel-imposed security protection that 3rd party apps can’t mark memory pages as executable.)

          It does reduce JavaScript performance in apps, but on the other hand an app can use native code, which is even faster than Nitro, for performance-sensitive things.

      2. Actually, the NewsstandKit API of iOS has a set of privileges unique to Newsstand apps, like the ability to push content to your device in the background.   Newsstand apps can also do anything a normal iOS app can do, so you aren’t limited to just wrapping a UIWebView around a tablet-friendly style sheet of your normal web site.

    2. I would argue that the problem is a combined social/technical one:

      The old-school newspaper guys behind this project hated and feared ‘the web’ because of the gutting it had given them. So, they rushed toward St. Jobs and his promise of a walled garden, full of easily monetized consumers.

      However, if they were going to deliberately cut down their audience by going ‘app only’ for something that could fundamentally have been done on Netscape Navigator in 1994, they’d need to add on a bunch of fancy ‘native’ “rich media” and similar platform specific gunk. By all reports, the iPad is powerful enough to push some pixels; but only if you know what you are doing, not if you are accustomed to letting your Adobe Suit puke whatever it likes to the guys over by the press…

      They managed to build a native application that offered worse performance than a simple browser skin/RSS aggregator style ‘app’. Unimpressive.

    3. As a web and mobile app developer I was going to make exactly that point. His argument that the device does not support innovation is flawed. Perhaps the owners of The Daily failed to innovate (I doubt that’s the entire problem) but it’s certainly not the fault of the device or medium.

    1. Depends – if it is less than you might spend on hosting, handling billing, subscriptions, (some) advertising, etc then it might be a very good approach. If you feel sure you can do better outside their tent, then not so much.

  4. Well, that and there is no use for such an app in the first place, since there are plenty of free websites with news on them. 

  5. The Daily folded because it was a crash-prone, low-content garbage rag. Product quality was low and therefore consumers didn’t bite. I tried it out for a few weeks after its release and was so disappointed in the app’s usability and the quality of content that deleted it and never looked back. Perhaps some features of the medium contributed to its failure, but a bad publication will fail no matter what it’s printed on.

    1. And News Corp spent too much money on it for the size of their audience.   The big win for a news app on mobile isn’t necessarily special content, it’s timeliness and convenience.  A much better approach would be to focus on a small amount of unique multimedia content features, and just repurpose the ton of content already being produced, but with great customization, use of geofencing and the ability to use push notifications for key stories.   

    2. Murdoch’s mistake? He didn’t stoop low enough: Page Three, mobile electronics, a marriage made in… err, never mind.

      1. I used to work for Roundpoint, which did this sort of app 10 years ago – although back then it was for PDAs running PalmOS and WinCE. And at some point, along with the somewhat higher-class newspapers and tourist guides, there was indeed a Page 3 app.

  6. This post is like a Best Of the Worst Of Cory’s habit of excitedly pointing at poor reasoning and saying that since Someone Important is saying some garbage today, that retroactively validates some similar garbage Cory spouted in the past.

    1. Watch out or someone will tell you you don’t have to read it, or worse, put you on the Disappointed List.

  7. Personally, I never subscribed because the content was just so generic. The photos were very nice, but there wasn’t anything I couldn’t get better from the rest of the internet. USA Today with better pics. The technical issues were always secondary to lack of interest in the week(?) that I tried it.

  8. “The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time…”
    Yeah. That must be why people stopped reading books in favor of newspapers.
    Horrible reasoning is horrible reasoning.

    The Daily failed because it sucked on many levels and had an unsustainable business model. Not for *any* of the reasons given in that article or Cory’s expressed view. I think the more accurate view, here, is “The impossibility of trying to do new things the old way.”

  9. it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free

    and that, in many cases the free stuff is better

  10. A couple of thoughts.

    It’s clearly bad news for the newspaper industry that new models of delivering paid for content are not working. However, I think it’s premature to write off tablet based paid for news productions. 

    The technology is still very new – just think how people mocked the initial 3G phone offering in the UK. People thought that no one would want to browse the web on a phone or watch videos on it but over time the demand has grown and grown.

    Also remember that Newscorp bought Myspace and lost money on the deal, but you wouldn’t write off social media on that basis, would you?

    As a local journalist I can tell you its a pretty grim time. Good journalism is a profession and it costs money to do it. If papers are either giving their content away free or can’t stop others copying their work then sales will fall and eventually journalism as a profession will collapse.

    I know many people might be tempted to think that will be no bad thing, but volunteer journalists and bloggers do not have the resources, training and legal expertise required for the best investigative journalism. And that’s a threat to democracy.

  11. I generally like Felix Salmon, but agree with the sentiments expressed elsewhere here that there’s a whole lot of dumb in his argument and Gruber’s take makes much more sense.

    The shame of it is that I think Corey is otherwise perfectly well equipped to see the weaknesses in Salmon’s case, but for his anti-Apple animus.

  12. I have no view on the technology side or who out-iterates whom, but is is indeed poor management for any company (no matter how large) to embark on a project worth $30 million without a realistic plan on how to get that money back. And after reading several articles on this it’s clear that’s exactly what Murdoch did. Which leads to three possible conclusions: i) Murdoch has lost his golden touch; ii) he never had a golden touch – anyone with some money could have made millions by publishing tabloids; or iii) he’s not a very clever businessman after all. 

  13. I have yet to see anyone point out an obvious problem. A majority of people that own iPads are likely to boycott/ignore anything from the corrupt group at Fox/Murodoch. I was vaguely interested until I hear who owned it and then never looked into it. Flipboard and Newstand and dozens of others cover all the news in a fine way.

  14. Yes, of course iPads were an awful idea. That’s why they quickly went the way of the G4 Cube and no one else came out with a tablet.

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