In Defense of Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily

Rupert Murdoch with the The Daily in his hand at its launchEveryone and their mother has been crapping all over The Daily since it announced just over a week ago that it was closing for good. What has struck me is that I think that someone needs to step in and contextualize what happened to The Daily and look at why the world’s first iPad only newspaper failed. 

The Shadow of News Corp

The Daily was owned and operated by News Corp., one of the largest media companies in the world. To move the needle at News Corp. you need to be generating serious revenue. A failure at News Corp. could easily be a success elsewhere.

One-hundred-thousand paid subscribers is nothing to scoff at. That’s about $4 million in annual subscriber revenue plus additional ad revenue. Those are great numbers for a young publication. Especially for an iPad app. Especially for an iPad app that was not an extension of an existing brand, but instead a completely new publication.

There are many print and web publications that have way less subscribers and less revenue than that, even after years and years in the market. Even some of the biggest brands in the world are not seeing that sort of traffic to their iPad apps. For a new brand to gain that sort of traction in a short amount of time is very impressive.

However by News Corp. standards, those numbers are just not going to cut it. Imagine being in the News Corp. board room, Rupert Murdoch asking, “Okay, what are the numbers for The Wall Street Journal? And how about New York Post? Okay… and how about The Daily?” Not going to sound so impressive.

When we think about the metrics of The Daily, we need to think about the context of News Corp. Outside of News Corp., if The Daily was just an indie app, we would celebrating those numbers, not slamming them. 

Go Big Or Go Home

As for spending, there is no question that The Daily was burning way too much money. John Gruber reports they were spending $25 million a year to keep it running (not to mention a lot more to set it up in the first place).

What were they spending all that money on?

A lot of their technology costs could have been alleviated by leveraging an existing platform (like MAZ for instance!). By building and maintaining something completely custom, they were baking in a lot of overhead from the get-go.

They also put together an entire editorial staff from scratch including writers, editors, photographers, designers, correspondents, etc. It takes a lot of people to create so much varied, original content every day. It was like funding a new newspaper, at scale, from day one.

Most iPad publications are sharing resources with web and print teams, and so they are not spending on an exclusive editorial staff. The Daily was unique in that respect. In retrospect, it may have made more sense to share resources with other publications within the News Corp. umbrella, but apparently they wanted a truly dedicated team. That’s expensive.

But again, we are talking about News Corp. here! It is completely reasonable to invest $25 million per year in what I’m sure they hoped would be a $100 million-plus business (which it would need to be to move that giant needle). If you are News Corp., and you want huge results and you want them fast, you do not hesitate to invest serious capital. It’s not fair to compare their spending habits to a small startup publication. News Corp. is like a VC – they wanted a big pop or they wanted zero. “Slow build” is not in Rupert Murdoch’s vocabulary.

Tech Is Hard

I remember The Daily version 1.0. It was buggy, laggy, and just a mess.

It got better over time, but it was never great. This is common with iPad publishing as content providers attempt to become technology providers, and believe me, those are different skill sets.

As MG Seigler wrote this week in his article “Why Magazine Apps Suck”, there are some really basic things that most magazine apps get wrong. He writes of early apps, “Issues were often 500MB – 700MB. I thought that would improve over time […], it hasn’t.”

One of the first things we spent time on when building MAZ was to alleviate these basic pain points. For instance, a 150 page issue, beautiful retina-ready images and text, zoomable to 200%, with a healthy amount of (streaming) interactive content, in an app created with MAZ would clock in somewhere around 50MB.

Some magazine apps (famous ones with huge file sizes that don’t use MAZ) even stop downloading when your iPad goes to sleep or when you switch apps. To me, that is just insane.

The Daily Of The Future

I got to visit The Daily offices and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is awesome– a whole newsroom just dedicated to a single app.” It was actually really inspiring.

It may have been superfluous, yes, but again, this was not a small startup experiment. This was a huge corporation trying to launch a new brand. To me, that was a validation of the whole idea of media apps.

My hope is that someone will create something like The Daily but will do it independently and do it smart. People talk about Marco Arment’s “The Magazine” as if it’s the solution, and it certainly deserves all the praise, but as Marco wrote himself, “It’s not a fair comparison: we’re not doing the same things at all.”

I believe that an original, highly visual news app can and should exist. Apparently 100,000 people would pay for it.