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.