Why ‘The Daily’ Failed

Jeff Sonderman, writing for Poynter:

With the benefit of hindsight, there seem to be at least two other major lessons from The Daily’s failure:

  1. Audience clarity. It was difficult to grasp who exactly was the intended audience of The Daily. It excelled at interactive elements and visual appeal, but the contents were so sprawling and varied that it was tough to know who this publication was speaking for and to.

  2. One platform isn’t enough. The Daily was first imagined as the daily news magazine for the iPad era. Going with a tablet-first strategy was a great, ambitious idea. But going with a tablet-only strategy? In hindsight, questionable.

#1 I agree with. The Daily had no personality, no focus. It wasn’t tawdry enough to be a New York Post-style tabloid, and wasn’t serious enough to compete with the New York Times. #2 I completely disagree with. Correlation is not causation, and I see no evidence that going tablet-only led to The Daily’s demise.

I have my own two-item list of lessons to be learned from The Daily:

1. Don’t Suck

The Daily launched with a tremendous amount of publicity, aided and abetted by Apple itself — Eddy Cue was on stage for the announcement. But the app sucked. Daily issues were almost mind-bogglingly slow to download, and even once downloaded, animations and page turning were slow, and navigation was confusing. The Daily garnered a lot of attention right out of the gate but had software that left a very poor first impression. That was a huge mistake and missed opportunity.

In the time since they launched, their software improved and download sizes shrank, but it still wasn’t great. They never seemed to treat software engineering and design as a primary function of the publication. They were competing as much against Flipboard as they were The New York Times, but didn’t seem to realize it.

2. Start Small

The Daily claims over 100,000 subscribers, each paying either $4/month or $40/year. Let’s round down and assume they’re all paying just $40/year. That’s $4 million a year. Apple took 30 percent of that, leaving The Daily with about $3 million. Plus, whatever advertising revenue The Daily generated was entirely theirs to keep. With 100,000 subscribers that should be worth at least $1 million per year, and I’d say that’s very conservative. (Traditionally, newspapers and magazines generated significantly more revenue from advertisers than subscriptions and newsstand sales.)

But look at The Daily’s actual expenses (quoting again from Sonderman’s Poynter piece):

With expenses running at about a half million dollars a week, the publication would have needed near 500,000 subscribers at $3.99 a month or $39.99 a year just to break even. So one big failing was the business model.

They set up an operation with $25 million a year in expenses. But there’s no reason why a daily iPad newspaper needs that sort of budget. A daily iPad newspaper of the scope of The Daily might (but I doubt it), but that simply means the scope of The Daily was ill-conceived. News Corporation went no further than taking the newspaper as we know it — the newspaper as defined by the pre-Internet 20th century — and cramming it into an iPad wrapper. You can’t tell me a good daily iPad newspaper couldn’t be run profitably for $5 million a year.

Maybe “newspaper” is the wrong term, because it carries so much historical baggage. Just think: daily news app. You don’t necessarily need the scope of a traditional newspaper, with entire sections dedicated to business, entertainment, and sports. (Sports is particularly problematic for a national publication.) Those sections only made sense in the pre-Web world where most people had no other source of daily news than their local newspaper. My advice to a would-be daily news app today would be to simply do the A section: the front page, breaking news, major national and world news, and opinion. There’s no way you need $25 million per year to do that.

The Daily as Proof of Anything

The usually-savvy Felix Salmon has drawn some ill-considered conclusions from The Daily’s demise, declaring “The Impossibility of Tablet-Native Journalism”:

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; this takes a surprisingly long time, even over a pretty fast wifi connection. That’s one reason why web apps can be superior to native apps: no one would dream of forcing people to download a whole website before they could view a single page.

On top of that, the iPad’s native architecture is severely constrained in many ways. Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait — you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad apps, which at heart are little more than heavy PDF files, weighed down with multimedia bells and whistles. Navigation is always difficult and unintuitive, and pages are never remotely as dynamic as what we’ve become used to on the web. This wasn’t The Daily’s fault. Again, take any native iPad publication at all. Read to the end of a story, and then see how many headlines you can click on: which stories are you being given the choice to read next? The answer is probably none, and again the reason for that is built deep into the architecture of the iPad, and of other tablets too.

That most existing iPad magazine apps are slow, badly-designed, can’t search, etc. does not mean iPad magazine apps cannot be fast, well-designed, and searchable. Salmon says “This wasn’t The Daily’s fault” but he’s 180 degrees wrong. All of these problems were entirely The Daily’s fault.

All impossible tasks have not been accomplished; but not all tasks that have not yet been accomplished are impossible. When it comes to media, what strikes many as The Daily’s cardinal sin is eschewing the open Web for the closed garden of a subscriber-only iOS app. The idea being that you can’t win without a web-first strategy. But that’s what “everyone” said about social networks too — until Instagram came along and became a sensation with an iPhone-only strategy.

Ben Jackson has a fine response to Salmon:

If you’re publishing on the iPad, you’re basically a designer rather than a coder, and you’re far more limited in what you can do.

No, you’re not, unless you can’t find a coder willing to work with you. Use Adobe Publishing Suite, and yes, you will have no control over the code. But that’s a far cry from some mythical limitation on publishing apps which prevents them from deviating from the horrible implementations we’ve seen thus far.

Exactly. A news app needs to care about its software to the same high degree that print publications care about their paper, page design, and distribution.

Concluding, Jackson gets it half right:

Publishing for a single platform, whether print, web, or the iPad, is a foolish move, and I think we knew that before The Daily was excised from News Corp.’s balance sheet. But to write tablet publishing off entirely due to one poorly-planned app from a massive traditional publisher would be terribly short-sighted.

The second part I agree with. The Daily’s failure had nothing to do with it being iPad-only and everything to do with the fact that it just plain stunk.

But what’s foolish about publishing on a single platform? I publish only on the web, and Daring Fireball seems to be doing OK. Marco Arment’s The Magazine publishes only for iOS and is doing well enough that he’s already expanded to hire an editor. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Daily’s success proves the opposite of Salmon’s conclusion: that an iPad-only daily news app could be a success.

Their success was that they got over 100,000 readers to pay at least $40 per year for a subscription. How many digital publications can say that? Not many. And the iPad — with Apple’s simple, trusted, familiar payment mechanism — made that possible. The Daily’s problem was simply that they weren’t conceived to operate on $5 or $6 million per year in revenue. A smarter, smaller team could.