Thursday, August 2, 2012

The future of The Daily and the future of tablet newspapers (actually the two are completely unrelated!)

Some media writers seem to be taking great pleasure in the news that The Daily is laying off staff in an attempt to survive (no links, there is no reason to encourage them).

I may be no fan of The Daily as a digital newspaper, but I am never happy to hear of layoffs.
As an experiment, I have found The Daily to be a brilliantly conceived and executed attempt at the world's first tablet newspaper. The design is logical – one of many possible – and the use of Newsstand, in-app subscriptions, pricing are above reproach.

I don't subscribe to The Daily, however, because I find its journalism to be repulsive, bigoted, reactionary. It is, in a nutshell, the Murdoch press.

But who else by Murdoch would have attempted The Daily. The New York Times is certainly own tablet edition is as conservatively conceived tech-wise as The Daily's is politically. The NYT's mobile and tablet efforts have lacked imagination, audacity.

Because the VC community has become the PE community, at least as far as media is concerned, there are few if any start-ups willing to create anything nearly as interesting or experimental as The Daily. There is no VerticalNet for the tablet newspaper market, no company will to put it all out there to prove the legitimacy of the platform for news.

Whether it is newspapers or magazines, there are always two kinds of readers publishers are attempting to reach: those that will subscribe to their products, and those that are casual readers.

Newspapers have long pushed hard for print subscribers because it has presented them with a fixed audience that they could sell to advertisers. Growing up in the newspaper business, the whole ad sales game revolved around ABC audits. If you were on top you simply presented your audit and convinced the advertiser that they needed to buy your product because it was the one that had the largest reach. If you weren't lucky to be in the position you sold on quality of audience or price.

Today, newspapers compete with more forms of media, and in an environment where their market penetration pales in often lower than other forms of media. Many newspapers are struggling to position their products as market dominant, and are failing to sell their greatest strength: the readers that are pushed the product every day – these are more loyal and valuable customers than the casual web surfer.

The goal of The Daily was to create a daily digital news product that could be pushed out to subscribers that would generate the total readership necessary to garner advertising. That is a very complex and difficult task.

Consider how hard it is today to launch a daily local newspaper that is not using a free distribution model. One has to print the paper and begin to attract subscribers, all the while waiting for a critical level to be reached where advertisers begin to look at the product as an effective marketing vehicle. Today it takes lots of money and patience to launch a daily newspaper. Guess what, 30 years ago it did, too.

The promise of tablet newspapers is that the cost of production and distribution is a fraction of print newspapers. But digital publishers make the mistake of depending on Apple and Google to reach their intended audience. The App Store has opportunities for promotion, but that is just one channel. Launching a national tablet newspaper still means reaching a national audience and convincing them to download the app. Few app owners are today advertising their apps on prime time television, are they?

A number of media writers have questioned whether the newspaper form is even relevant in today's digital media world. It is a legitimate question. I prefer to ask the question this way: is there a place for news products that are pushed to their readers rather than made available for them to find?
I think the answer is still yes. But one wonders whether the newspaper form will survive, or whether it is perfectly served by the news magazine form. The Daily, after all, looks more like a news magazine than it does a newspaper.

For the editors of The Daily, who came from the NY Post, the tabloid model seemed the most appropriate. I think they might have been right. Newspaper apps that look like print newspapers only exist because the print product still does. If The Boston Globe, for instance, were to get rid of their print edition, would it make sense for them to continue to design their digital products to look as they do?

With zero print subscribers, would one have to design a digital product to look like print?

But the real question is probably this: in a world without any print newspapers, is there still a need for a daily news product that is pushed to readers? Or are web, mobile and tablet products that are passively available to the reader all that is necessary?

My answer, at least today, is that pushed products still have an advantage in the market over passive ones. The problem is creating a digital news product that will appeal to the reader as much as print newspapers did in the past (and then attracting advertisers).

I know that many newspaper consultants advising firms believe the future is the web, period. That is why many of the so-called digital first newspaper chains are also the ones the lagging behind in creating compelling mobile and tablet products. To these consultants, it is the nineties, it will always be the nineties, and anyone who says differently is a fool. These folks have the ears of newspaper executives and are the ones seen at industry conferences and events.

Meanwhile, there are almost 100 million tablet owners and many more smartphone owners. Many of these news consumers are already subscribing to financial newspapers and magazines. For the publishers of these products the problem is one of timing: at what point, if ever, can one go 100 percent digital?

One fears that without print, many publishers would revert to form and begin seeing their mobile and tablet products as merely extensions of their web product. The Washington Post, The New York Times and others seem to be doing this now. There is one main product, and everything else is ancillary.

The Daily's approach has been to use its web site exclusively as a marketing platform. This shouldn't surprise those of us who launched our first websites in the mid-nineties. Initially all magazine websites were simply there to push the print product. Only later did they evolve into somewhat separate news sites.

The failure of digital publishers who come from print to understand that it is OK to have multiple products is seriously holding back tablet newspapers. This may be why I've always predicted that the first successful tablet newspaper, one not connected to a print product, will come from a digital start-up, especially if that start-up is well funded and savvy at marketing.

But the odds are becoming longer that that will happen. Investors have soured on the newspaper form. Despite Warren Buffett's recent investment moves, little investment is seen in the area of start-ups other than those that are web based (think Skift, for instance).

I doubt that The Daily will be the first and last attempt at a daily tablet newspaper. But the next big attempt may well come from out of the blue, and if successful, would seriously threaten major national newspaper chains currently depending on their print products to give them an advantage in Apple Newsstand.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

One certainly has to hope that the daily isn't the first and last attempt at a newspaper in tablet form. but who has the money to try it?