The Daily Drops Dead: What Murdoch's Failure Means For iPad Publishing

The Daily is no more. Rupert Murdoch's ambitious experiment in tablet journalism, launched not even two years ago, will stop publishing this month. Wasn't the iPad supposed to save publishing?

As failures go, this one is pretty spectacular. News Corporation worked closely with Steve Jobs himself to get the world's first iPad-only newspaper off the ground, having invested $130 million by the time it launched in February of last year. Flanked by Apple's Eddy Cue, Murdoch told launch event attendees that they were spending half a million dollars per week to operate The Daily. The world's second largest media conglomerate teamed up with the most valuable tech company on the planet to launch a product that attempted to reimagine news for the digital age. And it flopped. 

Signs of The Daily's struggle became impossible to ignore in July, when News Corp announced that it would be laying off 50 of its 170 staffers and trimming the app's content. By that point, The Daily was said to have 100,000 paying subscribers, which apparently wasn't enough to sustain the operation even another five months. 

Why The Daily Failed 

Questions swirled about The Daily's viability from day one. Sure, you had the likes of Murdoch and Jobs behind the project, but a glitzy launch event with a stage full of powerful executives doesn't necessarily translate into a sustainable business model.  

In his Newsonomics column for Neiman Lab, Ken Doctor estimated early on that The Daily would need to reach 200,000 subscribers to break even, which obviously didn't happen. Doctor was cautiously optimistic that this was possible, but noted that it would challenging given the publication's single-platform approach and limited Web presence. 

That iPad-only focus is part of what drove The Daily into an early grave, according to former contributor Trevor Butterworth, whose Facebook commentary was republished by Romenesko

"You can’t create an entirely new brand and take it behind a paywall after 4 weeks, while limiting its footprint on the Internet, and then expect people to buy it," Butterworth wrote. The content itself, he says, was just not good enough to attract paying subscribers.

Another economic hurdle is Apple itself. The company infamously takes a steep 30% cut from publishers' subscription sales, which makes it that much harder to turn a profit. This revenue share is the reason the Financial Times refuses to publish an iOS-specific app, instead opting for its own HTML5-based Web app.

A Rocky Start For iPad Publishing

The lesson News Corp just learned about tablet publishing economics was something The Huffington Post got a taste of in August, when it decided to remove the dollar-per-issue price tag affixed to its iPad-only magazine and instead offer it for free. Granted, the two products' cost structures and general business philosophies were quite different, but HuffPost's dismantling of its paywall was another clear sign that selling content to tablet owners might be harder than initially thought. 

Traditional publishers, many of whom looked to the iPad as their digital savior when it launched, have had mixed results. Wired's publisher loves the success he's seen with tablet apps, while MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin thinks the technology and revenue model is too cumbersome for media outlets, who would be better off publishing on the Web. 

There are also inherent limits to the iPad format, as Felix Salmon at Reuters points out. Tablet-based magazines and newspapers might have more gee-whiz bells and whistles than print, but the Web can still be a faster, less clunky medium for publishing. 

"No iPad publication is remotely as innovative or as fun to read as, say, BuzzFeed, because BuzzFeed has coders who can do very clever things with their chosen platform, and iPad publications don’t" writes Salmon. 

Indeed, research suggests that readers prefer their tablets' Web browsers to the meaty, slow-to-update and even more slow-to-evolve native apps that publishers have been eagerly developing since Steve Jobs first held up the iPad on stage in 2010.

New Experiments In Tablet Publishing

So The Daily's model didn't work out. Fortunately, others are willing to experiment with the format, even if it's on a much smaller scale. 

Inspired by the Netflix model, magazine subscription service Next Issue launched on iOS in July. For $10 per month, readers can get access to dozens of magazines from the likes of Conde Nast, Time Inc. and Hearst. This approach comes with challenges of its own, but it's certainly worth a try. 

Then there's The Magazine. Instapaper founder Marco Arment launched the stripped-down, iPad-only publication in October and it couldn't be more simple. For $2 per month, readers are promised eight thoughtful, well-written articles delivered in bi-weekly issues. The Magazine eschews the clunky, multimedia-loaded digital editions of print magazines in favor of a no-frills, high quality reading experience that Arment hopes people will think is good enough to pay for.