Why the iPad newspaper might not be doomed

I’ve been meaning to write something all week about Rupert Murdoch’s forthcoming Daily newspaper for the iPad. I thought I probably wouldn’t get round to it — too busy coding to write — but then Valleywag provided an excellent template in their dumb, shouty post ‘Why the iPad Newspaper is Doomed’ for me to write my own, disagreeing with them.

So, taking each of their points in turn and refuting their claim that “no one really believes this thing will last”…

Valleywag’s writer, Ryan Tate, reckons that a single daily edition is “retro”, appealing only to “newspaper sentimentalists” like Murdoch. Pffff. We’re not all jittery, caffeine-fuelled rolling-news junkies who think news is worthless if it was written more than ten minutes ago. As I wrote when putting together Today’s Guardian, there’s something to be said for a single, finishable edition of the news, rather than constant grazing of the latest headlines. It’s not for everyone but, you know, people still watch the News At Ten, despite the existence of CNN and Sky News.

Tate says the content will be unfocused because, like most newspapers, it will try and cover everything. I’m not sure if he’s complaining that it’s bad to cover everything because no one wants something that’s unfocused, or that the Daily’s 100 journalists can’t hope to provide such broad writing. I don’t know enough about newspapers to comment on the latter, but as for the former… being as broad as a newspaper, or plenty of websites, could be fine. Few people complain that newspapers cover news and music and food and books and everything else. (Actually, I do; I’d love a newspaper that was only news, but I doubt this is a common view, and a broader mix seems to sell.) It’ll be interesting to see what demographic it’s pitched at, skewed somewhat by the iPad’s own demographic.

Next, Tate says that News Corp. “sucks at the internet”. One thing I hear a lot is “the internet is different, you must get it to succeed, you old media folk don’t get it, ha ha, you’re doomed!”. Which is enormously comforting when you’re pointing and laughing at those silly old media people who persist in acquiring piles of money via all that attention people still give their products. But, you know, new media isn’t that new any more. Eventually some of these old media people are actually going to get it. And while Murdoch’s made internet-related mistakes in the past, big mistakes, he’s not an idiot. He knows business and he knows media better than most. It’s not impossible that he’s going to have a success before long, a big success.

Also, yes, MySpace was funny if you enjoy seeing companies you don’t like lose a load of money on things they don’t seem to understand but you think you do. But while Murdoch might have had problems understanding how to make social things succeed online, they’re hardly alone in that (hello Google!).

If Murdoch understands one thing, it’s news media. Tate cites the Times’ paywall as another failure. I’m not so sure. It’s early days and it’s easy to look at the paper’s subscriber numbers now and say it’s a failure. We could have done the same in the early days of Sky TV in the UK, but that’s far from a failure now. I don’t know if the Times will make a success of it, but then, no one does. Everyone is flailing around at this point. With the Times Murdoch’s trying a paywall. With the Daily he’s setting up something from scratch (probably no harder than trying to wrench a traditional paper entirely around and make it truly digital, something no-one has managed so far). Other people, like the Guardian, are trying other things. Who knows what will work.

Tate doesn’t think the business model will work. It would be stupid of me to state this is wrong because I know no more about newspaper business models than the statistically-most-likely next man. But it must be possible for it to work, given the large, and growing iPad audience and the reduced costs compared to traditional papers (some stuff here by the ever-interesting Horace Dediu about that). It depends on the quality of the journalism, writing, presentation and the price point and payment mechanism. I wouldn’t rule it out. These are early days of people paying for stuff to read on iPads, phones etc.

Another of Tate’s criticisms is that being an iPad app, there’s no linking to it, it’s walled off. I hate closed-off unlinkable media as much as, no, more than that next man, but I wonder about this. I don’t want walled-gardens to succeed but sometimes I wonder if my thoughts of “it’ll never work!” are merely hopeful, based solely on my beliefs of what’s “right”, rather than objective analysis. Most people, I suspect, don’t care as much. Yes, the Daily will miss out on direct social linkage from Twitter, Facebook etc, but on the plus side, it will be charging money. Weird idea I know. But non-walled-gardens, with all those incoming links, rely on giving everything away. Again, both models might work.

Tate, and others, point out that there are plenty of free alternative news sources all over the internet. This is true, and this is a difficulty for anyone writing anything, whether it’s paid-for or not. It all depends on the material I guess and how exclusive and desirable it is. There is more free TV broadcast every day than anyone could ever hope to watch, but people still pay a lot of money for walled-garden cable/satellite TV. If it’s possible to get enough writers that people are willing to pay for, who can’t be read for free elsewhere, maybe the Daily can make it.

Finally, apparently we don’t know of any famous, talented tech people who are running that side of things at the Daily. Yes, they could do with someone good. Maybe they have someone good but Murdoch hasn’t promoted them, or we haven’t heard of them. Maybe it doesn’t actually matter that much. Really. If someone was setting up a new print newspaper, would we be saying “ooh, it’s going to fail, I’ve no idea what the CMS is, or who’s running the presses, or what font they’re using!”.

So there we go. A quick off-the-top of my head gush into Valleywag’s template of criticism. I’m very, very far from a fan of Murdoch and the schadenfreude I’d experience seeing him fail at something would be something to look forward to. But I haven’t seen any cast iron, irrefutable criticisms of why he will fail at this. He could do, because this is a tricky area and, again, no one knows how to make this work.

If Ryan Tate is so certain about how to be a success in this area I expect he’ll be off to make his millions tomorrow. I suspect, thought, that Murdoch has more chance of succeeding.

Comments

  • A data point you might find interesting, given the analogy you draw between the News at Ten and Sky News: “Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans.” That’s from a David Carr column about the Jon Stewart march, in the New York Times.

    Meanwhile, regarding the Times and its paywall, I’ve seen some estimates that reckon that, even with the tiny readership, their subscription fees are more or less matching the advertising revenue for papers such as the Guardian. I’d take that with a bit of a pinch of salt, but it’s at least somewhat plausible.

25 Nov 2010 at Twitter

25 Nov 2010 in Links