And here isn’t the news

So the very day I post about “there isn’t much exciting new stuff going on”, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc. roll out their little iPad newspaper lovechild. Surely that instantly gives the lie to my whole post yesterday and I should therefore slink away hanging my head in shame?

Nope. Sorry. If anything it reinforced my jaded view that there is nothing new going on, just incremental updates, a few minor business ideas feeding parasitically off larger existing ones – and also the last stand of the old media guard.

In this case it’s the concept of the newspaper that is making a last stand. We’re seeing desperate days for the news media and for journalism, with falling sales and revenues making the very idea of news reporting look like a vanity project that is a preserve for the seriously rich; the rest of us will use Twitter to find out what’s going on.

I’ve criticised Murdoch in the past (for his Times firewall strategy), but one thing I always freely give him: Murdoch is a newspaper man through and through. He truly loves and understands the daily paper, and his recent initiatives have all been about saving the faltering medium. In many ways I hope he can find some way to succeed.

But alas, as much as Murdoch understands the printed news, he really doesn’t seem to understand the online counterpart. In newspapers he was always ahead of the curve in his ideas and business strategies, but online he’s perpetually a day late and a few million dollars short. Do I have to go into the sad tale of MySpace, which News Corp confirmed yesterday that it was now trying to offload before it collapses completely?

Reviving the tried-and-failed concept of the firewall is, I still believe, just one example. Sadly the new iPad Daily is another, because it’s one more tired attempt to produce a closed ‘electronic publication’ that was tried in various forms as long as ten years ago by the likes of Wired, and which withered and died when exposed to the full blast of the Internet. On its début, it already seems like a very jaded idea.

The main criticism against the Daily seems to be that it’s notably light on content, despite the estimated $500,000 weekly overhead producing it. The user experience doesn’t seem to have won many people over, nor has the fact that it is – as the name implies – centred around such an old media concept as daily publishing rather than continuous updating (although it does apparently have capacity for some ‘breaking news’ throughout the day.)

Here are some of the reviews and analysis pieces that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:

I don’t offer a review of it myself because I haven’t downloaded and tried it yet. I probably would if it were available outside the US, but I was also put off by stories about the Daily’s privacy policy, which seemingly allow the Daily app to collect every scintilla of information about how it’s used on your iPad – right down to every sweep and swipe – and report it back to News Corp HQ. That’s a level of monitoring that I’m frankly not wild about signing up to, even if it is “the modern way.”

Some commentators suggest that regardless of the Daily’s shortcoming, it nonetheless represents a sea change in online journalism and a major shift the industry – mainly because “Murdoch has the money to make his tablet publication, The Daily, succeed.” I’m not so sure.

Murdoch’s pockets are not as deep as many presume, and they’re already being raided heavily to keep his flagship properties such as The Times afloat despite their losing an estimated £2m a week. Murdoch has his limits, and is not averse to changing his mind when something isn’t working despite how it might look to everyone. A case in point is the free tabloid evening paper that he launched in London, thelondonpaper, which promised similar “game changing” qualities and yet was beaten out by an inferior product (London Lite that was essentially using second-hand copy from the pay-for Evening Standard.) After three years Murdoch could no longer carry the cost, conceded defeat and shut down the paper – while the other free papers (the Evening Standard replaced the London Lite in the freebie market, and there’s the morning Metro) have gone on to thrive in the sector that Murdoch decided was unwinnable.

It certainly demonstrated that Murdoch is not infallible, and nor is he any more capable than King Canute of turning back the incoming tide.

But enough of the downside – surely there’s something upbeat about this week’s launch? Perhaps the most interesting thing is the subscription model of the new Daily: for one thing, a cost of 99¢ a week (or 60p) is firmly in that bracket of prices that people simply don’t think are worth spending any time considering and simply fork over – providing the payment mechanism is so simple and frictionless that it doesn’t cause a delay and allow the conscious mind to pipe up before the payment is made.

Sure enough, the existence of the Daily is as much to do with the platform on which it appears – the iPad – and its supporting iTunes Store business model as it is to do with any re-imagining of the presentation of news itself. And if the iTunes model of ease-of-small-payments wasn’t already slick enough, Apple have changed their system to coincide with the Daily’s launch to provide even easier in-app purchasing of on-going access to content. One click and the week’s access is sorted out. It is the subscription model as it really should be – has to be – if it’s ever to work.

So genuinely there is something new and exciting under the hood, but it’s in the business model rather than the product itself: the Daily seems altogether the weakest aspect of this new launch. News Corp. and Apple Inc. have to build an entire new brand and attract an entirely new audience and market for it, which is going to be expensive, time-consuming, and require patience and a lot of money. You have to wonder why they simply didn’t use the business model to take an existing brand online with a pre-existing user base instead, which would surely better leverage the assets and the opportunity.

Instead, Murdoch has The Times cowering behind its newly erected paywall, initially trying to attract £2 a week or £9.99 for a four-week iPad subscription although the subscription model is being tweaked all the time. Presumably the premium is because The Times is a “proper” newspaper and they’re trying to charge extra for the brand name, but undercutting it with a cheaper ‘lite’ competitor is not going to help either publication, and The Times has suffered a 87% drop in traffic since the introduction of the firewall and subscription model, while analysts scratch their heads at the impossible economics behind making the Daily work, having to labour under the sort of overheads of being a new stand-alone publication.

But to come back to where this article started: surely the discussion about subscription costs and ease of in-app payments makes the launch of the Daily counts as “exciting new stuff going on”?

I’d agree with you, except that as far back as December 2008 I wrote a blog piece right here about how the future of newspapers could well be an iTunes-type news store – an iNews Store. Apple have simply finally made it come true. Of course a lot of the details are different because much has happened in the meantime with the development of iOS apps and the creation of the iPad which no one saw back then, but the fundamental principle of micropayments through a central iTunes-type clearing house still holds. In fact in many ways I maintain that some of the suggestions I wrote about back then are better than anything we’ve still yet seen, and that today’s iTunes business infrastructure makes it all quite possible to implement now.

I’m honestly not crowing or showing off about my prescience (oh, well, I am a little I guess – sorry!) Just making the point that far from seeing anything new or innovative this week, we’re merely finally catching up with what looked new and exciting back in December 2008.


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