The Daily: Digital publishing at the speed of a slow-motion car crash

The Observer has an entertainingly scathing report about The Daily, News Corp’s iPad “newspaper”. Murdoch-haters will probably enjoy the reference to the family patriarch as a “cuddly Emperor Palpatine”. For long-time Murdoch watchers, the key thing to watch for in reports of any digital project at News Corp is the attention and focus given it by Rupert Murdoch. Once he bores of a bauble, you can put the project on watch for the dead pool. (*See MySpace)

I read The Daily for a few days, when I could be bothered to wait for it to download. Initially it was slower than a download of photographs of an issue of Wired, known to some as an iPad magazine. More than its early clunkiness, even as an American, I found the content uninteresting, which surprised me. The Observer said that it’s aiming to be middle of the road populist. You can accuse Murdoch of a number of things (queue begins to the left these days), but one thing you can’t accuse him of is boring content. The Daily is boring.

The Daily also lives up to its name. It’s a daily newspaper with some tablet navigation, and The Observer explains why it seems so slow and clunky.

But the sleekness of The Daily’s presentation belies a “devilish” production routine for those inside, according to one source. Attempts to perfect the content management system were abandoned in order to launch closer to the announced date. After copy is filed, coders work a night shift to build the pages, each of which must be laid out both vertically and horizontally. Those familiar with the operations report long, frustrating nights.

Ouch. On one level, I’m willing to cut them some slack. The iPad is a new platform, and the tools are still emerging. However, when you’re creating a new product, it hardly seems wise to make life so difficult. I wonder what requirements were made editorially in an attempt to justify such a painful production process. This is often the source of a lot of bad production, editorial requirements that actually ‘cost’ more than they are worth.

Digital can and should work at the speed of news. Just look at the rise of live blogging. Tablets and e-readers can take digital backwards. If they slow down the production of news, it’s an unnecessary speed bump that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be justified with their small use compared to the web (at least until the revenue picture improves). Fortunately, we’re getting through the teething process with tablets. HTML5 is maturing much faster than anyone expected, and soon, we’ll get past these very first generation efforts. It will be interesting to see if The Daily survives to see that day.

The iPad and mobile: ‘How does information relate to movement?’

Last year, days after I took a buyout from The Guardian, I wrote a fun little rant about publishers and their delusional approach to the iPad. Since then Suw and I have bought an iPad and have tried out a number of apps, and one of those apps was The Daily.

The shortcomings of the interface and the app have been well covered. (The Daily, now with 20% more crash-tastic badness.) However, rather than focus on the poor interface or lousy execution, I’d like to focus on the bland content, something you don’t usually get to say about Murdoch content. You can say a lot of things about Fox or The Sun but you can rarely criticise Rupe for making boring content, until now. I’m from the US. I read a lot of news about home, as any expat does, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why I should care about 95% of the stuff that I have read in The Daily. It’s like a crappy CD-ROM version of USAToday on a day when they’ve given the staff writers the day off and have all the interns write about their pet issues. The Daily: The publication that doesn’t know what it is, and in digital content (or any content for that matter), meh never wins.

Michael Wolff, who is no fan of Murdoch, has a scathing piece in Adweek that raises the question of just how long the mogul will support The Daily.

Is The Daily the Heaven’s Gate of mobile? Not just expensive, but inexplicable. Not just a bomb, but an albatross.

Ranting aside though, Wolff points out something really key, thinking of the iPad as a mobile device:

Meanwhile, the mobile form expands and grows, driven by a basic question that most publishers have seemingly not asked: How does information relate to movement?

Moreover, how does the iPad relate to real-time information or time-shifted but frequently updated information? One of my favourite apps on the iPad is the FT. The ability to easily shift from live to downloaded content is amazingly functional. It is so useful that it has driven my use of the FT. In the couple of weeks that I used The Daily, neither the information or the format did anything for me. I’d rather have the more traditional site paradigm and the simple yet elegant functionality of the FT iPad app than the rather showy and useless interface candy of The Daily.

Publishers have rarely thought about how the web and now mobile change how information is consumed. They have a product that they want to sell, and they only see the web and mobile as different containers to sell it in. They don’t think much about how those platforms change the way we relate to information. It’s as if we were still in the early 1950s, producing radio programmes with pictures for TV. What is frustrating for those of us who have been doing this for a while – since the mid-1990s for me – is that we know how to tell stories on the web. We know how digital and mobile change ways that stories can be told.

That said, I’m actually quite optimistic. The iPad has renewed interest in novel digital story telling and design, and I’m even more enthusiastic about HTML5 which opens up all kinds of possibilities for not only the iPad but the desktop, smart TVs and other new devices. However, it’s going to take some digital thinking rather than thinking that sees digital as just another vehicle for print.

iPad magazine sales continue dropping

After some initial very positive sales figures for magazines on the iPad, sales continued to drop for US titles as the end of 2010 approaches, according to a post by John Koblin in WWDMedia.

Vanity Fair sold 8,700 digital editions of its November issue, down from its average of about 10,500 for the August, September and October issues. Glamour sold 4,301 digital editions in September, but sales dropped 20 percent in October and then another 20 percent, to 2,775

iPad sales for Wired, which outsold print copies with the iPad edition in its first month, have seriously tailed off. We now have several months of declining sales for the iPad edition. The iPad as ‘print’ saviour now looks less and less likely. Would a better subscription model help? Would less print-centric thinking help? At this point, the sales figures don’t look to justify the premium ad rates some magazines are charging for the iPad.

Dorian Benkoil writing on PBS MediaShift quoted John Loughlin, executive vice president and general manager of Hearst Magazines:

As Loughlin noted, this is an experimental period, when magazines are learning what they can offer and how much they can charge. Some apps will be breakout hits. A combination of web, apps, mobile and print sales may bolster magazines and give them new life and sustained profitability.

But the excitement over apps has some difficult realities to confront until that day is reached.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. There are no silver bullets, no single solution that will save publishing. It’s going to take strategic thinking that focuses on building compelling print and digital products and building a multi-revenue stream business or businesses to support them.

iPad expectations for content companies coming down to earth

I was always sceptical that the iPad would dramatically change the economics of digital content. Well, more accurately, I called content execs “delusional”. We’ve now got a few months of data under our belts, and Brian Morrissey of AdWeek comes to many of the same conclusions that I did after looking at some of the early apps and pricing strategies:

Despite the optimism that greeted the new device, there is a danger that publishers are squandering an opportunity with clunky apps, bad pricing strategies and unsustainable ad tactics.

Yes, and unlike when I wrote the post back in April, we now have months of user data, interviews and sales figures.

The first month, Wired sold more copies on the iPad than in print. After that promising first month, the designer was described as a cross between Jesus and Pele. There was lot of messianic talk around the iPad. I still love the line from Mathias Döpfner, head of Germany’s Axel Springer, who said:

Sit down once a day and pray to thank Steve Jobs that he is saving the publishing industry.

I wanted to see what the sales were after a few months, after the early adopters that read Wired had a chance to use it and decide whether static images of print pages was the digital experience that they wanted.

Wired: 100,000 iPad downloads for June; July, August, September averaged 30,300.

It looks like the early enthusiasm is cooling. iPad sales from other titles are even less impressive. When I listened to the magazine and newspaper industry talk about the iPad, they talked about how close it approximated the paper experience. As a digital consumer, I said it then and I will say it again: I don’t want a paper experience. Frankly, on a recent flight, I was frustrated trying to wrestle my print FT into submission in an economy seat. I can’t search it. I can’t flick between sections. I have no problem reading on a screen. I want to save and share what I read. As designer Khoi Vinh says in AdWeek:

The magazine app experience, according to Vinh, is akin to a “remote, suburban cul-de-sac” while the digital world is moving to a real-time chaotic city.

In a lot of ways, publishers thought that the iPad was the future that could take them back to the past of the fat profits of the print era. It doesn’t look like it’s as simple as replicating the print experience and waiting for the money.

It never was going to be that simple, and it’s a bit disappointing that the leaders in the industry believed a single device was going to overturn years of experience and expectation from the web. In the end, it just reinforces that we’re in need of a fundamental rethink. There is no magic technology that will transform print into digital success. Think digitally and commercially and then we can start building sustainable digital businesses.

iPad app pricing: You’re not fooling consumers

As I mentioned in one of my comments on my previous post about iPad app pricing, the gap between the value assigned by publishers and the value perceived by consumers was one of the big issues in terms of paid content.

Now, we’ve evidence of this. Mediaweek is reporting that “Mags Get Pushback on Per Issue Price on iPad“. They quote this comment on Time magazine’s app.

As one customer of Time magazine’s app ($4.99 single issue) wrote, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re … passing the savings on distribution and raw materials to themselves. I can get 56 issues of the paper version for $20. How am I supposed to feel about this?”

Some consumers also misunderstood the pricing, thinking that the per issues pricing was actually a subscription. They also quoted an unhappy, although not antagonistic, comment from a Popular Science customer, who wanted to be ‘help’ and buy the iPad edition but couldn’t bring himself to pay the $4.99 per issue price. Sara Öhrvall, director of research & development at Bonnier Corp., publisher of Pop Sci, put a brave face on it saying that they were working to prove the worth of the per issue price. She said:

We have to do a lot of work to recreate the magazine for the iPad.

However, that’s the problem. Rather than recreating the magazine for the iPad, why not think about the iPad how it changes what you can offer. This has been the problem when it comes to digital content. Most content creators think of recreating a legacy experience instead of creating a new experience. We have digital audiences now. They are natively digital. They don’t want a magazine experience on an iPad. They want a premium digital experience delivered on their device.

That they might pay for, although it’s doubtful that they will pay more than you’re charging them for a print experience. You’ve got a long way to go to prove that to consumers.

iPad app pricing: A last act of insanity by delusional content companies

Looking at the iPad app rollout, you can easily separate the digital wheat from the chaff in the content industries, and you can see those who are developing digital businesses and those who are trying to protect print margins and who see the iPad as a vertical, closed model to control and monetise content.

There are those who believe that they sell content and that they should be compensated for it. Just as with the music industry, they couch this in terms of repaying content creators, when it really is more about wistfulness for the days of double-digit profit margins.

Those who view their primary business as selling content believe that not only can they charge for it but that they can actually charge the same or more for it, just because it is on the iPad. Time, for example, is charging $4.99 a week for their iPad ‘magazine’.

Scott Karp, CEO of Publish2 and editor of Publishing2.0, put it as clearly as it needs to be put on Twitter:

Paying $4.99 for magazine on newsstand includes cost of printing/distribution. Now you pay for iPad instead, so magazine should cost less.

What do you get for $4.99 a week?

Unique interactivity including landscape and portrait mode, scroll navigation and customizable font size

Oh, I’ve never seen that in a mobile web browser, I say with incalculable levels of sarcasm. That’s like morons in the 90s having Java animation that you actually couldn’t do anything with and calling that interactivity. You think that’s insane and delusional, just wait, it gets even better! No content sharing on the app, which I’m assuming means you can’t bookmark or Tweet your favourite stories, and you’ll have to buy and download the app every single week. There is also no indication that they will charge for their now free iPhone app or their website.

Note to Time digital strategists: Sorry caching your site so I can take it with me when I’m on the move isn’t a feature worth your premium pricing. I do that now, and have done it for years, with an open-source app called Plucker and an aging Palm T3. I’m truly sorry. Do you actually use the internet or digital devices or do you just indulge your bosses’ angry fantasies about the good old days?

Let’s look to Rupert Murdoch’s proud paid content pioneer, the Wall Street Journal. What is the Wall Street Journal selling? The past. Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online for the Wall Street Journal, says on MarketWatch:

We have come up with a version of the Wall Street Journal on the iPad that I think is closest you get to a newspaper reading experience on a digital device.

To be fair to Murray, he goes on to say that anyone giving their content away for free on the web won’t be able to convert those readers on the web to paid readers on the iPad. Murray says:

You have these apps, but you also have a web browser. So I don’t see how any newspaper that is giving its content away for free on the web is going to be saved by the iPad because the iPad makes it easier to access that free content.

Unless the Wall Street Journal’s app not only delivers me a ‘newspaper reading experience’ (which I frankly am not missing anyway) but also picks my stocks for me so that I can retire next year, I’m not going to pay $17.99 a month for it when I can subscribe to their website for $1.99 a week. I didn’t work on a journalist’s salary and still manage to be in a financially secure position by giving money away to grumpy old media moguls like Murdoch.

Paul Kedrosky, venture capitalist and private equity investor who writes the blog Infectious Greed, said on Twitter:

Paying $17.29/mo for WSJ iPad app should disqualify you for something important, like being allowed to use money.

As I’ve said before, Murdoch for all of his brash brilliance has no understanding of the economics of digital businesses. I give him props for still having the power to shift the discussion, and I think that his paywall strategy at the Times might help it stem its £250,000 a day losses. However, his paywall strategy is a defensive move, not a long term strategy. Unless he starts building credible digitally-focused businesses as soon as the paywall brings in some cash to stabilise the business, it will be a brief pause on the path to collapse.

Now, let’s look at other strategies for the iPad. Let’s look at the FT. Robert Andrews, UK editor of paidContent, says that the FT secured sponsorship that allows it to offer its iPad app for free for two months, after which time they will shift to subscription model with the promise of additional features. Much cleverer.

Suw and I talk often that one thing really lacking when it comes to digital content is commercial experimentation. The FT securing sponsorship for a free app for two months is a good step at not only experimenting with content but also with payment models. The Economist earlier this year released a report on social networking, allowing users to download it for free and giving sponsor prominent credit for the offer. This is clever. Premium sponsorship opportunities for special content or services.

Look at the development thinking behind National Public Radio’s iPad app. They did market research and found that up to 5% of their audience were planning on buying an iPad. They knew what the opportunity was. They also used iPad development to improve the experience for visitors coming from search or social networking services, explains Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of NPR Digital Media.

Compare the strategies and thinking. On the one hand we have a set of pricing models that deliver marginal value for premium prices and show very little that differentiate themselves from the web experience, although they expect to charge more. These pricing models are based on a sense of entitlement to set pricing as it was in the days of print. I won’t even call them strategies because they lack any kind of realistic strategic thinking.

On the other hand we have a set of strategic pricing structures. NPR takes a realistic look at the commercial potential, does market research and develops its app not just for a single device but also as a chance to make improvements to their overall service. The FT experiments not just with content but also with the commercial strategy.

In terms of who is positioning themselves for the future by delivering value to their audiences and experimenting with business models, it’s clear. If any company thinks that the iPad will allow them to rebuild the monopoly rent pricing structure of the 20th Century, then you’ve really fallen prey to the Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, and you’ve blown yet another chance to build a credible digital business. However, I’ve got a game you might want to check out, Final Fantasy.

The iPad is a content strategy

As a geek and a journalist who often covers technology, I pay attention to the gigabytes and gigahertz that most people don’t. To be honest, in the era of giga-computing, the average user can’t really tell the different between a dual-core computer running at 2.3Ghz or 3.2Ghz. It does whatever they need it to.

The tech spec arguments have now moved on to netbooks and mobile phones, devices where a beefier processor can mean the difference between a smooth experience and a jerky, frustrating one. The spec counters have come out in force to denounce the Apple iPad: A 1Ghz chip sounds pretty weak. No USB. No expansion slot. 3G as an option.

As they do so often, spec counters and feature fanatics miss the point. There are phones on the market that do more than the iPhone but few do those things so well. When you’ve got a device that doesn’t have the almost limitless power of today’s desktop computers, you have to make choices.

However, with the iPad, that’s actually beside the point. The iPad is first and foremost a consumer electronics device. Do you worry about the processor in your cable box? No. The set-top box is merely an electronic gateway to content, and that’s what Apple is hoping to create with the iPad.

Yes, there are other media slates out there. Just look at the nearly dozen slates that NVidia was plugging at CES. HP will release a tablet later this year, and Amazon is going to beef up the Kindle. However, none of those devices has iBooks or the apps, games, music, movies and television available from the iTunes store. No other device offers this kind of content. I’ll agree with Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab that the iPad is focused on ‘reinventing content, not tablets‘. iTunes and its effortless integration with the iPod helped differentiate it from the crowded market of MP3 players, and the content is what Apple is hoping will ensure the success of a new type of device, the iPad.

Consumers still have to render their verdict on the iPad, but the stakes for Apple aren’t just about the success of a single device but really about a much broader digital media strategy.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]