The impossibility of tablet-native journalism

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.


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