The Daily’s Woes Proves Content, Not Platform Is King

Publication was boxed-in from Day 1 by its iPad-only positioning

The Daily will fire off its last electronic dispatches Dec. 15, bringing an end to a deeply flawed, but ultimately important experiment in digital journalism.

When the News Corp.-owned publication announced staff cuts in August, Adweek asked digital industry leaders what the future held for tablet-only publishers, who defended The Daily's foray into the tablet space and noted that the market was (and still is) incredibly young.

Since August, The Daily and digital magazine properties like Nomad Editions have shuttered their tablet editions, citing low subscriber numbers and painting a very bleak picture for the tablet-only space that only a year ago held so much promise for digital media prognosticators. Witness how quickly The Huffington Post ditched its paid subscription strategy for the tablet magazine Huffington.

While the coming months will surely give way to deeper analysis of The Daily's operations, it's fair to say many saw this coming, and though the dust hasn't begun to settle on News Corp.'s tablet experiment, the end of The Daily would seem to provide some early lessons regarding digital (read: tablet journalism), namely that content (and not platform) is king.

Specifically, The Daily has shown that in an increasingly platform-agnostic world, fast, accurate and easily accessible information takes precedence over flashy, stylistic layout. While few would criticize the rich and often striking design of The Daily's app, including its experimentations with responsive layouts for both portrait and landscape viewing, most of the criticisms of the digital newspaper centered around its rather generic content, geared to appeal to a seemingly undefined and generic audience.

Add a paid component to the mix—The Daily had one of the earlier implementations of the digital paywall—and its lackluster subscription numbers were understandable, especially as more well-known news outlets joined the sphere with their own tablet apps.

While there is an argument to be made that the tablet-only world of publishing is still in its infancy, others like Reuters' Felix Salmon believes The Daily's demise heralds the death of tablet native publications. On Monday Salmon wrote, "The verdict is in. Tablets aren’t a new medium [that] will support a whole new class of publications. There’s almost nothing you can do well on a tablet that you can’t just put on a website and ask people to read in a browser."

Given the buzz the publication generated at launch, the conversations have begun and will continue to bleed beyond tablet-native concerns into questions about digital journalism's overall revenue models, especially paywalls.

"Publishers' experiments over the last five years suggested that The Daily's 'all-or-nothing' paywall was doomed from the start," said MIT Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin. "The data say such paywalls don't work because new readers aren't exposed to the walled publication's stories through links, and print's traditional methods of audience acquisition (typically, list rental and direct mail) don't work online.

"At the same time, entirely walled sites sacrifice millions of pageviews and therefore ad impressions," Pontin continued. "It was a weird decision to create a subscription-only tablet in the first place. Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. must have been hypnotized by the superficial resemblance between a tablet publication and a print newspaper."

The Daily's Trevor Butterworth, a tech writer for the publication, echoed similar confusion with the News Corp. tablet strategy. "You can’t create an entirely new brand and take it behind a paywall after four weeks while limiting its footprint on the Internet, and then expect people to buy it," Butterworth said via a Facebook post on Monday.

Pontin notes that few publications beyond The Economist and The Financial Times have succeeded with flexible paywalls (where readers are allotted a number of free stories) and labels The New York Times' supposed paywall success as "ambiguous."

However, The Daily's ambitious experiment seems to be less about the efficacy of the paywall model and more about the importance of quality in the digital world. No one trendy digital innovation such as a tablet can save lackluster content. Perhaps that's been obvious all along, but at least now there is some proof to back it up.

Publish date: December 3, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT