The impossibility of tablet-native journalism

By Felix Salmon
December 3, 2012

The Daily has reached the end of its life: as News Corp splits in two, its losses, which might have been manageable within the current behemoth, would have loomed far too large in the smaller spinoff.

The news is not particularly surprising, but it would be wrong to simply dismiss it as a Murdoch folly which holds few lessons for anybody else. Rather, I think that The Daily has taught us all an important lesson — which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped. Specifically, far from being able to offer richer content than can be found on the web, they actually find themselves crippled in unexpected ways.

News apps, it has become clear, are unwieldy and clunky things. Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened; this takes a surprisingly long time, even over a pretty fast wifi connection. That’s one reason why web apps can be superior to native apps: no one would dream of forcing people to download a whole website before they could view a single page.

On top of that, the iPad’s native architecture is severely constrained in many ways. Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait — you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad apps, which at heart are little more than heavy PDF files, weighed down with multimedia bells and whistles. Navigation is always difficult and unintuitive, and pages are never remotely as dynamic as what we’ve become used to on the web. This wasn’t The Daily’s fault. Again, take any native iPad publication at all. Read to the end of a story, and then see how many headlines you can click on: which stories are you being given the choice to read next? The answer is probably none, and again the reason for that is built deep into the architecture of the iPad, and of other tablets too.

When the iPad was first announced, there were lots of dreams about what it could achieve, and how rich its content could be. But in hindsight, it’s notable how many of the dreamers came from the world of print. Web people tended to be much less excited about the iPad than print people were, maybe because they knew they already had something better. The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time.

I’m reminded, here, a bit of Apple’s iOS Maps debacle. Compared to old-fashioned static maps, Apple’s maps are amazing. They also come with clever 3D views: an impressive bit of technological gimmickry which doesn’t add a huge amount of real value. But while Apple was working on rendering technology, Google was incrementally improving its own maps in much more useful ways, employing a huge team to add vast amounts of rich data every day. The result was that by the time Apple’s maps launched, they were inferior in most ways to Google’s alternative.

Similarly, when the iPad launched, it allowed people to do things they could never do with a print publication: watch videos, say. But at the same time the experience was still inferior to what you could get on the web, which iterates and improves incrementally every day. The iPad then stayed still — the technology behind iPad publications is basically the same as it was two years ago — even as the web, in its manner, predictably got better and better. 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. If you’re publishing on the iPad, you’re basically a designer rather than a coder, and you’re far more limited in what you can do. This kind of thing, for instance, works OK in Safari for iPad, but you won’t find it in a downloaded publication.

One of the things that confused me, when The Daily launched, was the way in which it failed to leverage the wealth of rich and valuable content available within News Corp. You couldn’t watch episodes of The Simpsons, you couldn’t get access to amazing footage from Avatar, you couldn’t read exclusive extracts from HarperCollins books. Murdoch was happy to spend a large eight-figure sum on building custom-made content for the new publication; he even shelled out for a Superbowl ad. But he never managed to use The Daily as a means of bringing his company’s already-existing content to life in new ways for a new platform, and I suspect that iPad constraints are part of the reason.

Tablets, it turns out, are a great way to consume content which was designed for some other medium, like books, movies, and videos. But weirdly, magazines and newspapers are having a harder time of making the transition: there are many books I prefer in electronic format, but there isn’t a single magazine or newspaper which I’d rather read on the iPad than on paper.

The promise of the iPad was that it would usher in a rich-media world combining the versatility of the web with the high-design glossiness of magazines; the reality is that it fell short on both counts. The Daily was Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to get a head start in the new medium, but in this case the medium simply isn’t good enough to get traction: the only iPad-native content which has worked really well has been games.

As far as news and journalism are concerned, the verdict is in: tablets aren’t a new medium which 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. Publications of the future will put their content online, and will go to great lengths to ensure that it looks fantastic when viewed on a tablet. But the tablet is basically just one of many ways to see material which exists on the internet; it’s not a place to put stuff which can’t be found anywhere else.

Rupert Murdoch is quoted in today’s press release as saying that “The Daily was a bold experiment in digital publishing”, and he’s right about that. Someone needed to see whether there was such a thing as tablet-native journalism, and Murdoch took that role onto himself. The answer, it turns out, is no. But we didn’t know that when The Daily launched in 2010. Now we do.

Update: Some good responses in the comments, and also from Ben Jackson.

Update 2: Gruber weighs in, and of course is a must-read. I’m going to revisit this subject, after doing a bit of homework. But to make one thing clear: I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as a good tablet news-reading experience. I’m saying there’s no such thing as good tablet journalism: that is, journalism made for the tablet specifically. If you take, say, an old-fashioned long-form text story, there are ways to make it a joy to read on tablets. (Just like books can be a joy to read on tablets.) But there’s nothing tablet-specific about that. If you look at something like Marco Arment’s The Magazine, the app is lovely, clean, and lightweight. But it doesn’t take specific advantage of the tablet format to do the kind of journalism which can’t be done in a different medium.

Comments
16 comments so far

There’s really nothing inherent about the iPad or other tablets that creates these limitations. The New York Times app, for example, doesn’t divide its content into issues, and while they may not have reached the level of nytimes.com, I’m given plenty of choices for what to read next.

The real problem with these apps is publishers believing that it’s just a fancier version of a print magazine, or even the multimedia cd-roms of the 1990s, and acting accordingly, and slick salespeople from Adobe selling them on this vision. Add to that the fact that this sort of heavy-handed native app development is expensive in large organizations, and you get bad apps that are rarely updated.

There are certainly things you can do in a native app that you can’t do with a web app. (Whether you’d want to is another question.) On the other hand, it’s trivially true that a web app can’t do anything a native app can’t do—you can always just embed a web browser inside the app, which is what apps like Facebook do when they don’t want to wait for Apple to approve a new feature.

Posted by guanix | Report as abusive

Felix, don’t mistake bad execution on a good idea as proof that the idea is flawed. While I’ll address to the technical reasons you provided, one big point you didn’t mention is that a large number of tech-savvy consumers of news won’t read a Murdoch publication. That’s going to limit their audience tremendously.

First of all, a tablet is just a computer. “Tablet” is the form factor, and saying:

“which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped. Specifically, far from being able to offer richer content than can be found on the web, they actually find themselves crippled in unexpected ways.”

makes little sense. The tablet can do whatever a browser on a PC can do, it just makes it easier to use and more flexible in when it can be read. The richer content is mainly due to the touch screen on the tablet, which makes reading magazines and news more comfortable than on a computer.

“Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened; this takes a surprisingly long time, even over a pretty fast wifi connection.”

That’s due to the choice of the Daily. If there aren’t that many photos or videos, it can be downloaded pretty quickly. You’re writing off the whole medium because the guy who bought MySpace didn’t understand what would be the best way to deliver the news on a tablet.

“Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait — you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad app”

That’s the app’s fault, not the tablet. Developers can design search functions into their apps; NewsCorp obviously felt it wasn’t important.

“The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time.”

That’s a flaw, not a feature. That’s why the NYT charges more for digital versions than print, because they can’t charge as much for ads on a dynamic platform than they do for the static paper version. If they made ads sticky to pages that were downloaded, they could charge more for them, and then charge less for the digital subscription. I’m so ticked off that the NYT wants me to pay more for a digital subscription than for paper delivery (I don’t want them to cut trees, use ink, and burn fuel to get me a paper I won’t read) that includes a digital subscription, that I use the trick to get around their paywall that I learned here – delete everything in the address bar after .html.

“No iPad publication is remotely as innovative or as fun to read as, say, BuzzFeed,”

Why do they have to be fun? Isn’t more convenient, less expensive, and less energy intensive enough?

“You couldn’t watch episodes of The Simpsons, you couldn’t get access to amazing footage from Avatar, you couldn’t read exclusive extracts from HarperCollins books.”

So what? Does everything have to be cross-marketed? What if I just want the news, and don’t care about the Simpsons? I’ve seen Avatar more than once, do I really need my news source to let me quickly connect again? I just don’t see that as a factor in the failure of the Daily.

“there are many books I prefer in electronic format, but there isn’t a single magazine or newspaper which I’d rather read on the iPad than on paper.”

I prefer 3: The New Yorker, Wired, and the FT (the only issue with the FT is they do leave some stuff out of the ipad app). I doubt if I’m alone. For newspapers, I don’t have a problem reading any of them on the ipad, once I click on full site, instead of the mobile version, which does suck. The biggest problem with reading news on tablets is the most appropriate time to do that is while traveling, and that consumes bandwidth that VZ and ATT charge a lot for.

“As far as news and journalism are concerned, the verdict is in: tablets aren’t a new medium which 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.”

The only verdict that is in is that Murdoch doesn’t know how to utilize new technology.

“But the tablet is basically just one of many ways to see material which exists on the internet; it’s not a place to put stuff which can’t be found anywhere else.”

I’ll go along with that, but there’s no reason publishers can’t optimize their content for each delivery platform, including tablets.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

@KenG – thanks for taking the time to debunk the article. For another perspective on how to design for the device – read the insightful http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_p ublishing/

Posted by ccoc | Report as abusive

If tablet journalism is so hard, how come @TheEconomist is doing such a good job of it?

We had the pleasure of hearing from the CEO of The Economist in the high tech community in Cambridge UK. Basically, they did audience analysis to figure out how people read their information. They learned that people saw The Economist as a “lay back” read, with a reserved time away from distractions to properly consider the arguments. That was highly compatible with the Kindle. Consequently they set a price on Kindle 4 times higher than New York Times.

In the meantime, the internet has completely cratered the old advertising model for financing news. Groups like CraigsList have destroyed huge amounts of value simply giving away margin to the buyers and sellers by letting them connect directly. That margin isn’t available to pay for reporting locally any more.

Simple. The Economist make money because people want to read the news they publish. The Daily was unable to, because subscribers aren’t willing to pay enough.

Posted by MattSchofield | Report as abusive

I’ve learned long ago not to generalize my own wishes beyond my own small circle, but speaking for myself, I like the way these apps work.

I love reading the paper edition of the newspaper and still get the Sunday NY Times even though I also subscribe on the ipad. The tablet edition is like the paper but without the environmental costs and general clunkiness. It’s exactly what I want.

Same goes with most of what I do with the ipad: read pdf files. I don’t have to print out and store and mostly lose thousands of pages of paper anymore. I’ve got it on the ipad.

For other stuff I’ve got my computer. So count me as one of the people who like the way it has evolved, even if I’m in a minority.

Posted by f.fursty | Report as abusive

It’s not the medium, it’s the eye of the developer. Bad apps happen because the person who creates them does poor construction poor user experience. The same accusations are made about interactives made with Flash, but it’s about the construction. Remember when Flash web sites that had big “downloading/wait” screens, until developers became more sophisticated?

Felix, you are right to point out the web site as a much better/more evolved model. No publication can support building 5 experiences: iPad, iPhone, Android tablet and Android phone, plus a web site. It’s better to build one web site, optimized for all experiences. Then publications can focus on creating great content, not chasing the latest word of mouth hysteria.

Posted by KurdtCobain | Report as abusive

1. Magazines are great on the iPad but the experience of reading an entire issue without connecting to net is separate from connecting and reading bits and pieces. The market for the former is not only limited but unless data plans become more expensive over time that market will decrease. There will be less reason in the future to load all your content for an issue because you will be connected more. So that particular model of the whole issue is not a big winner.

2. Google had year to develop its maps. Apple started over. Not the same thing. You want to write about a business decision: think about whether Google was smart not giving Apple vector based maps and turn-by-turn directions. They drove Apple to make its own maps and lose the search revenue because of what? Then check to see how much Google makes off iOS searches and ask yourself if jeopardizing that was worth it.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

You can’t do on a tablet what you can do on a computer for a simple reason. Companies want to exert control or extract revenue that they have little chance of obtaining on the web. Show me Flash on a tablet. Apple may complain over its bugs even as it pushes an equally buggy Quicktime, but it is really a turf war for control and revenue.

Posted by MyLord | Report as abusive

The issue seems less about the limitations of a tablet and more about how journalism has approached the new medium. It’s not really a question of PC vs. tablet.
No matter the platform, journalism hasn’t solved the puzzle of digital delivery. Open vs. closed. Site-based vs. feed-based. Custom designed vs. responsive.
Print journalism owns the best news content online. But its end product remains a digital mirror of print rather than a new approach that takes advantage of new capabilities.
It’s clear that will change with time; it’s not clear if print journalism can lead that change or if it will follow new leaders.

Posted by ista | Report as abusive

Apps can do anything browsers can do, and more. The real problem is that you need to be a software company at heart to do apps well. Looking at app development as an expense will lead to penny pinching that sabotages the product.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

The conclusions reached here are 100% wrong. The Daily’s failure is its own fault, for poor design and execution. There’s no reason news apps can’t be fast and searchable with good content and a great user experience. The Daily wasn’t unsuccessful in obtaining readership, but it was way over budgeted and couldn’t sustain it’s expenses. The app was downloaded 100,000 times. Not bad. But it needed to be a much better experience to get the number of subscribers necessary to sustain the high budget. It can be done better, and the Daily is just one poor example- not proof of the iPad’s suitability, rather proof that news companies need to keep thinking about how to do it right.

Posted by tallrob | Report as abusive

Mmmm..you can’t do exactly the same on a magazine app as the web. You have to download it first – which takes ages. Then you are trapped in the app – which is counter-intuitive to web users. I appreciate the ‘immersive read’ idea of magazine apps, but don’t find the fomat anywhere near as appealing as paper. And I have tried.

Posted by MrsBeeetle | Report as abusive

RE Update 2:

The retort about “tablet-specific journalism” is a cop out. Is there “print-specific journalism”? “Web-specific journalism”? Journalism is journalism; the medium may afford opportunities to enhance the story – visuals, sounds, interaction – but the story is the story, period. As a medium, a tablet is identical to the web: a screen, speakers for audio, touch or a pointer and a (virtual) keyboard for input, a microphone.

The story here is that NewsCorp squandered a tremendous opportunity, not only in terms of publicity, having been launched in partnership with Apple, but in terms of a billing and delivery framework that successfully convinced people to pay for what they can generally get free online.

Posted by Oluseyi | Report as abusive

This fetishism for separate apps makes about as much sense as requiring people to download separate browsers for every website they visit. To go then and tie it to one manufacturer and model, in this case Apple and the iPad, sets up about as many roadblocks to success as you can imagine.

Posted by leoklein | Report as abusive

There’s been a story recently on the British website, The Register, about the creation of the BBC News website. One of the significant things they managed was to connect to the journalism that the BBC does. Right from the start, the website was using the same text resources as the rest of the BBC News operation. A journalist wrote a story, and it could be on radio or television or the web, or all three.

Yes, the BBC has the huge advantage that it doesn’t depend on advertising, but they managed to make the web pages a low cost publication method.

I sometimes have the feeling that a lot of news operations are still trying to catch up with the BBC. Its reputation counts for a lot, and that website, using the same journalism, using the same branding, hardly needed to do anything but work. The Murdoch news empire is big, but it isn’t really a brand in itself. Never mind the quality of the journalism, what is “The Daily”?

The way the technology was used was hardly the only problem.

Posted by Zhochaka | Report as abusive

I had a look Ev Williams’s tablet-based Medium. I can’t figure out if it’s insufferably twee, or the next best thing, or possibly both. Still, it’s interesting.

Posted by lambertstrether | Report as abusive
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