There’s plenty of negative stuff to write about Rupert Murdoch, and I think, by this point, I’ve covered all the bases. But there’s also a Murdoch I admire. He’s the one who leads and doesn’t follow, takes risks instead of playing it safe, expands consumer choice instead of serving up the same old crap, disrupts markets rather than calming them, and defies governments (except China) instead of mollifying them.
Best of all, he loves newspapers and doesn’t think them passé.
It’s the venerated Murdoch—not the genocidal tyrant —who is making headlines today by launching a new “newspaper” for tablets, The Daily. (You can download it on Apple’s App Store for free for the next two weeks, thanks to a sponsor’s largesse. Afterward, the price will be 99 cents a week.) A small selection of Daily stories will appear for free on the newspaper’s Web site, but those are teasers. Murdoch’s goal with The Daily—in fact, with all of his print products (Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, etc.)— is to reverse the industry-wide practice of giving content away via the Web. Murdoch believes in pay-walling his properties.
This morning, the Murdoch I like debuted his tablet publication at a press conference, touting it as a product built from scratch that marries the best of old-school journalism and new technology to “completely reimagine our craft.”
All that reimagining is costly. Murdoch said he’s invested $30 million in The Daily so far and that the current budget is $500,000 a week. Taking gambles like this—especially on new media ventures—is totally Murdochian, as MediaWeek (via TechDirt) pointed out in late December as it inventoried his digital disasters since 1993 (Delphi, iGuide, Fox Interactive, MySpace, IGN, PageSix.com, Photobucket, Sky Songs, Project Alesia, and so forth). A lesser entrepreneur, especially one who turns 80 next month, would say to hell with the future and ruminate about his past. But Murdoch, having made a pact with the devil as a young man, intends to live forever, hence his insistence on creating a news product for what he considers to be a new medium.
Is the iPad really a new medium? Or is it just a new business model? Every media form that can be served on an iPad can be served on a laptop—text, photos, the 360-degree photos that Murdoch got so excited about in the press conference, audio, and video. The only tablet advances are portability, form factor, and touch-screen navigation—all very big, mind you, but as technological advances go, the leap from laptop to tablet isn’t as great as the one from 78s to 33 1/3s.
Judging by the first issue, I’d say that The Dailyis more about establishing a new business model, with an effective pay wall, than embracing a new medium. For as long as the commercial Web has been around (I’d say 1995), Internet entrepreneurs have struggled to create frictionless toll roads that didn’t require pulling out a Visa card every time you wanted to buy a product or something to read. By piggybacking on Apple’s App Store, Murdoch’s new publication makes it easy to pay to read.
What The Daily has going for it right now is cachet. It’s the first original daily-news product designed explicitly for the tablet, tablets are hot right now, and everybody is paying attention to the space. The Dailyis also priced lower than penny candy, which is only slightly more expensive than free. (Pricing at the bottom has long been a Murdoch business strategy.)
But cachet, like a spray tan, can vanish overnight. Which is why The Daily needs to stop being a novelty app and start being an essential app—right now. Although The Daily’s editor, Jesse Angelo, said at today’s press conference that the publication had produced six weeks’ worth of demo issues before today’s launch, it still looks like a prototype.
By calling it a prototype, I’m not being critical. Practically no publication comes out of the gate perfectly formed. It takes time for any new publication—or new editor at an old publication—to find its métier, which is why I’m not usually keen on reviewing first issues of anything. If you’ve worked on a startup publication, you know that it’s a miracle the thing got out the door at all. My generosity is informed by the review Salon’s Gary Kamiyawrote about the first “issue” of Slate in the summer of 1996. Getting “medieval” on our asses, as he put it, Kamiya chided us for being too Beltway, too turgid, and too uptight. Part of Slate’sstuffiness derived from the fact that we were striving to make it look like a print magazine. Why? Billions of people knew what a print magazine looked like, but only the few hundred thousand who had ever read Salon or Feed knew what a Webzine was supposed to look like.
As presently constituted, The Daily reads and looks like a daily version of The Week magazine injected with a little of the photographic spirit of Life magazine. I’m underimpressed with its first editorial—”We will fight for sensible immigration reform and smart environmental laws”—and I have doubts about Murdoch’s press-conference declaration that the publication’s “editorial position will be in the hands of the editor.” That’s not true of any operation in Murdoch’s media empire. Why bother to assert it about The Daily?
The Daily’s editors appear to favor short-form over long-form journalism: A length of 1,000 words (which is shorter than this piece!) seems to be as deep as they’ll let most articles go. So to The Week and Life hybrid, throw in some USA Today genes. Seeing as one of the take-aways from Angelo’s press-conference presentation was that people love spending lots of time with their iPads, I’ve got to assume that longer, more ambitious work has been assigned. “Curiously, no business section,” my colleague Andy Bowers e-mailed to me; instead, there’s just a one-page “Biz/Digest.” “There should be a button in #thedaily which says: ‘stop the whiz bang & just give me the damn stories,’ ” tweeted paidContent founder Rafat Ali. Of course, if you subtract the whiz-bang, there’s not much left, so I would rewrite Ali to say, “Put more whiz in the bang, or don’t bother.”
The biggest thing going against The Dailyisn’t its Murdochian baggage, which maybe a couple of thousand people in the United States care passionately about. Nor is it the difficulty a new publication will have in finding readers when it’s not being crawled by search engines. The problem isn’t even the ceiling on potential readers, as set by the number of people who have access to a tablet. (Apple has sold 15 million iPads worldwide.) The biggest obstacleThe Daily faces is Murdoch’s impatience, as the MediaWeek piece on his tech properties illustrates. His fickleness transcends the tech space. Murdoch bought the Los Angeles Dodgers and then sold the team six years later. He spent years chasing DirecTV before dumping it. He entered the U.S. magazine market (Automobile, Mirabella, New York, TV Guide, Seventeen, etc.), then exited. He grew a U.S. tabloid newspaper mini-empire but now owns only the New York Post.
The Daily’s launch is giving Web veteran Evan Rudowski “that odd feeling of déjà vu.” Writing in paidContent on Jan. 30, he charts the 15-month rise and fall of iGuide, the mid-1990s Murdoch-owned digital publication that Rudowski worked on. Murdoch was all go-go for iGuide, too, spending a rumored $2 million a week on it. He believes the corporate culture at Murdoch’s News Corp. killed iGuide. There was too much corporate intrigue and office politicking, too much money wasted on cool offices, too much senior-management turmoil, and too much dependence on Murdoch’s partner, MCI, which bailed after a few months.
“Being early is the same as being wrong,” Rudowski quotes Excite co-founder Joe Kraus as saying in speculation about The Daily’s prematurity. Rudowski writes that a bottoms-up strategy almost always beats top-down, that the News Corp. culture will smother Murdoch’s baby. And, he wonders, what has The Dailygot going for it that beats Flipboard or Pulse—two free iPad apps for the aggregate news feeds, Facebook feeds, and Twitter feeds?
The triumph of The Daily is that it exists at all. It will be up to Rupert’s billowing moneybags to make sure it’s worth what he expects you to pay for it. I’m hanging onto my pennies for now, awaiting The Daily2.0.
Rupert turns 80 on March 11. What should I get him? Respect? A fourth wife? Send suggestions to email@example.com. I suspect I’ll be live- tweeting birthday greetings to him all day long on his special day. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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