The Daily, news by the numbers

February 7, 2011


By John Abell
The opinions expressed are his own.

It isn’t every day that a new “mainstream” news publication launches, so hurrah for News Corp and deep pockets and experimentation. The Daily is not only a new brand, but a brand new approach to publishing, tied to a specific device — just as ink + newsprint equalled a newspaper. The really radical notion is that people are going to have to pay to get it, making content the deciding factor over style, speed and even convenience.

The Daily is up against a number of things, not the least of which is the web and a link economy Rupert Murdoch has argued undermines the economics of news gathering. As an avowedly for-profit undertaking which burns through $500,000 a week, it has quite a bit to achieve.

Putting aside content for the moment, here is what The Daily does have going for it.

It’s tailored for the iPad (and other tablets in future years), an intimate platform and a device Murdoch believes is poised to succeed the laptop as the computing device of choice. The Daily can’t be read any other way (well, except for the efforts of this enterprising fellow). It isn’t so much behind a paywall as a moat.

It is artistically composed. A story may have a 360-degree photo, but not every story does. Videos seems not so much appendages but the proper leavening to other forms of storytelling. It is easy on the eyes; I found the use of cover flow for story pages a clever navigation implementation, though others found it trite.

The Daily doesn’t cost much: As little as $0.11 a day if you commit to a year, but still only $0.14 a day if you string along week-to-week (There is, it should be noted with irony, no daily option for The Daily). News Corp charges considerably more for a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and The (UK) Times, which includes an iPad version. So does the Financial Times. And while we don’t know what The New York Times will charge when it puts up its paywall, it’s also likely to be in the $4-a-week range.

But by setting the price so low The Daily challenges other publishers to justify what they charge, or prove that readers want to pay more to get a print version or access to a web site at all.

Advertising will pay some of the freight, but Murdoch is betting heavily that readers will pay in sufficient numbers to upturn the traditional media notion that you sell readers to advertisers. The Daily’s break-even number is somewhere north of 400,000 paying customers. Murdoch has says he’s aiming for a bigger audience than even that for his hit Fox TV show, American Idol — which averages 26 million viewers. Talk about ambitious.

But a big part of The Daily’s mission is to prove a point: Murdoch’s mantra is that the internet has conditioned people to expect to pay nothing for quality news coverage, so if they pay for this he’s striking a blow for journalism.

But the “who pays for journalism” issue is not a problem for readers. With so much to choose from, The Daily’s prospects will depend on exactly one thing: Content that is so compelling that it must be read.

The Daily arrives as readers are increasingly being asked to pay, from Ongo — a media-backed daily online newspaper which culls from other daily newspapers — to The Atavist — which charges per original, non-fiction, longform story.

People are willing to pay for things of value — we are not pirates at heart. So if The Daily doesn’t fly it won’t necessarily mean that “it’s free or nothing,” but only that the value proposition was wrong. The Daily is a high-profile attempt to disrupt the disruptive online business model, but win or lose it won’t be the last.

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