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The Daily – a survival guide

January 23, 2011

newspapers from EuropeRupert Murdoch’s latest experiment in online media will be launching in a few weeks (after recent delays). Details are still pretty scarce, but it’s clear iPad-only, US-only daily news app The Daily (as it will be called) has a rocky road ahead of it.

The always insightful Ken Doctor has crunched some numbers on The Daily here. He estimates Murdoch is aiming for about 200,000 subscribers. Martin Langeveld, another industry expert, uses the same sort of numbers here. Both are good reads.

There’s a lot of tablets in the US (10 million iPads sold worldwide so far, mostly in US), but that 200,000 subscribers is going to be a struggle. As Langeveld points out, the USA Today’s app – what I suspect will be the most direct competitor to The Daily – has only had 1 million downloads, and that’s free. Murdoch has to convince 20% of that number to pay.

The big problem Murdoch faces here is content. To charge for news in the digital age, you have to produce high-quality news people can’t get elsewhere. Content, as they say, is queen. And it’s content that’ll make The Daily soar or sink.

Generally, you can get people to pay for content based on:

1) Exclusivity – News is everywhere online. If people can get that news elsewhere, usually for free, then why pay for yours?

2) Value – If people can make money of your content, they’ll pay for it

3) Length – The iPad is a lean-back device that’s good for reading longer-form articles, more magaziney type content. If The Daily publishes articles that are only five to ten paragraphs longer, free summarisers like Newser.com will provide enough of its content to cut the legs from under The Daily’s subscriber base.

4) Speed – You can make people pay for content if you aggregate free content and send it to people quickly

5) Insight – There’s so much information online. People want articles that provide analysis, commentary, and wisdom to make sense of it all. That’s why some people will pay for a magazine subscription that makes sense of the news (though considering how badly some news mags are doing, not sure how many). This can be everything from politics to economics to music to sport – there will be a certain segment of the population who want deep insider info, and they’re willing to pay for it.

So how does The Daily do? We don’t have details yet, but let’s see what we can say.

There’s no reason to expect The Daily’s content to be highly exclusive. It’s basically a daily paper, and there’s enough free websites covering US news for free online. They’re going to have to break some massive stories to be different enough to convince people to pay.

And no, exclusive interviews with celebrities won’t cut it. It needs to be good stories that competitors don’t have.

The Daily is exclusive is one sense – exclusive to the iPad. But that’s not a good thing. The trend in the US and Europe is for newspapers to offer bundles to access their content on any platform – computer, mobile, tablet, print or whatever. It’s often one price for everything, though some break it into tiers.

The point is, that seems to be what people want. To pay a subscription to access news only on the iPad will seem like a bad deal when New York Times and Wall St Journal subscribers will be able to get their news wherever they are, no problem.

Let’s move on to value. There’s no indication that The Daily will provide exclusive business info. If it does, it will go up against some established, digitally savvy heavyweights like the Wall St Journal (iPad app currently free, will be $4 a week once it starts charging) and the Financial Times (about $3.50 a week).

The Daily, at $1 a week, will be cheaper than those, but for people who want business content they can make money off, that’s only going to be seen as a good thing if The Daily is as good. Otherwise, the wealthy business readers will stick to what they know, figuring they’ll make more money with higher quality information.

Ok, let’s look at article length. The iPad does let you have long articles, and the Daily could capitalise on that. Still, if Murdoch is trying to make a daily paper for the iPad, that’s a lot of long articles to produce each day.

Best estimates are that the Daily will have 100 staff working for it. How many of these are actually reporters and writers remains to be seen, but newspapers have a lot of other people employed to make them work (finance, ad sales, HR, secretaries, editors, sub-editors, photographers, graphic artists, and for the Daily, multimedia experts too).

Let’s be optimistic and say they can trim down the auxillary staff to the bare essentials, and keep 75  reporters and writers on staff. If each writer can produce two articles a day, that’s about 150 a week. The Daily will probably publish seven days a week, so that’s 20 articles a day.

That’s enough to convince me to pay, if the articles were all on interesting or useful subjects. But is there enough US content out there to write 20 good feature articles a day? Every day? I have serious doubts. So while The Daily’s feature articles may start strong, they’ll peeter out soon enough if they keep up that pace. They might be able to make a go of something like that if they published weekly though.

So I expect most of the articles to be news, and that’s much harder to charge for than magaziney, featurey content. Expect long news articles analysing the major events from the US and around the world.

Speed is a big problem for The Daily. It will only be published once a day, like a paper, with selected articles updated during the day as required.

That’s a big strike against it, but not a fatal one. The iPad is a lean-back device, and people tend to use it in the morning and night. Maybe the Daily will capitalise on that trend and publish twice a day, with a summary of all the important news at 7am and 7pm. Some people will want that. But that’s not high enough value to charge for it.

Finally, we have insight. As Langeveld says on the Quora link above:

“If The Daily provides some real meat — some fodder for thoughtful reading, or some very useful business and financial information — it has a chance.”

And it does, but I’d change that to:  “…some fodder for thoughtful reading, and some very useful business and financial information…” And I’d add: “...Also it needs insightful analysis of the day’s events, and content that can’t be easily summarised, and content you can’t easily get elsewhere for free…”

It’ll fail if it just provides business/financial info, I think, because it won’t be able to take on the WSJ or FT on their own patch. And fodder for insightful reading, well, it’ll have to produce a lot each day to encourage people to keep paying.

The Daily feels like Murdoch’s attempt to make money putting context around the day’s news. Long articles like the New York Times publishes.  The trouble is, news moves too fast for an app published once a day. By the time The Daily’s reporters have finished writing their insight, it’ll probably already be online somewhere, or another app, and possibly for free. And it could be 12 hours before The Daily has it.

If Murdoch is trying to compete with or screw over the Times on the iPad, it’s a battle it can’t win. The Times is on mobiles and the web too, remember. The Daily could be trying to be a poor man’s Wall St Journal, providing some insight and useful, valuable information, but not really enough to compete with the WSJ, but it’s cheaper so what. That has potential, but it’s a shaky middle ground between free and good enough, and expensive but good quality.

So all in all, The Daily has quite an uphill struggle against it. If it goes niche, subscribers will either be too few to pay the budget, or it’ll be up against some fierce competition. If it doesn’t, it’ll struggle to produce enough high value, exclusive content to convince people to pay. If it tries producing this content with a slew of long-form articles, it’s going to run out of interesting topics. If it concentrates on shorter news articles they’ll be more easily and more cheaply found elsewhere.

Good on Murdoch for experimenting, but I don’t see that as viable business niche.

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