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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The Newsonomics of Mr. Murdoch’s Daily

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect.

It’s a daily newspaper being taken to the web. And: It’s the sensation of the moment. After 15 years of decrying the re-purposing of print newspapers for “online,” we’re making quite a fuss about a product — Rupert Murdoch’s digital outlet, The Daily — that is proudly leveraging the newspaper metaphor, creating a mostly (we think) daily edition, with some updating.

At first blush, it seems like a 2001 idea, dressed in new 2011 clothes. But maybe it’s the clothes that make all the difference, and that make Mr. Murdoch The Man. The new outfit, after all, is the iPad, the hot device of our time — the one that seems to be playing havoc with what we thought we knew about digital news reading (“The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

It is impossible, of course, to make much sense of The Daily until we can actually read it. With iPad products, we’re often into that crazy first blush associated with any new digital device, confusing the device itself with the product.

We think The Daily will now launch in the next couple of weeks, as Apple finalizes its work around subscription offerings. Maybe Rupert won’t get his two-shot with Steve Jobs, given Jobs’ new leave of absence, but we know The Daily will greatly benefit from the great shelf placement Apple is bound to give it as it opens its subscription store. (And News Corp., of course, has plenty of its own owned properties to help in marketing, as well.)

So what might The Daily be?

It could be the USA Today of 2011, 30 years after that newspaper started its own category of national papers identified by nuggetized journalism and color-coded, easy-to-grasp presentation. As the first digital news native in the tablet space, The Daily certainly offers that possibility. Or it could be just New York Times lite, with its timing, by coincidence or purpose, blunting the Times’ own efforts to charge for digital content more generally and for the iPad specifically. Or it could be a next generation of “The National,” a white-hot star of a national sports daily, crammed with talent, that burned out within a year and a half in 1991. And it could read like either a newspaper or a magapaper, given its hiring of some magazine hands.

If you are the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast or Slate, you’ve got to be asking the question of why The Daily could charge and why it couldn’t. Is the value in its web (desktop/laptop access) lineage — or is portability just how we, readers and publishers, think about information now? As seems increasingly true, the tablet in general is upending lots of ways we think about digital news.

So let’s take a quick look at the Newsonomics of The Daily, tempered by our partial knowledge of it.

Budget

We’ve heard the $30 million number, which covers two-plus years of operation. (That’s close to the $31.5 million that Murdoch sunk into Alesia, his failed news portal, as Jeff Bercovici has noted.)

The $30 million would be a big investment for many newspaper companies these days, but not for News Corp. Consider, just as an example, the $33 billion (in revenues) the company takes in through its 20th Century Fox division. Marmaduke, “a dog of a movie,” came in fourteenth on the company’s 2010 grossing list, at $33 million, behind Unstoppable, Knight and Day, and Vampires Suck. And Avatar (“The Avatar Advantage: Big and Bigger Media“), the top grosser, took in $408 million.

So the $30 million for The Daily is pocket change, at worst another big R&D project.

Costs

We’re hearing that about 150 staffers are assigned to the project, about 100 — or two-thirds of them — journalists. Let’s take $90,000 as an average FTE cost, a valid estimate given the New York (with L.A. as a bureau) siting of the product. That’s $13.5 million in annual staff costs. We don’t yet know how much News Corp. is leveraging its well-developed and ample advertising sales staff, its technologists, or its marketing people — or how the costs of “borrowed” News Corp. or Dow Jones resources are being allocated internally (echoes once again of USA Today). News Corp. could be devoting significant marketing dollars here, as well, to better leverage its Apple relationship and its first-in-format launch.

Figure a first-year run rate between $15 and $20 million, and maybe a tad less for a second year, and you’ve got $30 million.

Subscription revenue

On revenues, as well, the hypotheticals are intriguing. The Daily is a U.S.-centered, iPad-based product; its only web presence will be promotional. We think that Apple sold over 10 million iPads last year, mostly in the U.S., and — though numbers vary widely — forecasters estimate another 50 million in iPad sales between 2011 and 2012, and 70 million tablets overall (again in the U.S.). So let’s say, roundly, that by the end of 2012, there are around 80 million tablets extant in the U.S. Getting just 1 percent of their users to subscribe to The Daily (and, yes, some households will have multiple tablets, but let’s let that go for the moment) would mean 800,000 subscribers. And a quarter of those would be 200,000 subscribers.

Let’s say The Daily could get to 200,000 at $52 a year. (It’s priced at 99 cents a week, out of the chute.) That’s $10.4 million in subscription revenue. Apple, which presumably will be doing all the e-commerce for this tablet-only product, would take 30 percent of that, leaving $7 million in net annual returns.

There are a couple of early caveats here. First, The Daily, an old-fashioned news idea, will likely have to use old-fashioned selling approaches: lots of free sampling and discounts. (That’s one of the many issues Apple must work out as it decides what it means to be a subscription-offering company.) So the 200,000-multiplied-by-$52 math won’t be a straight line. (And, of course, if it’s successful, News Corp. can raise rates.)

Second, let’s fast-forward six months from The Daily’s launch. It is now challenged by a number of paid digital news products: those of the Times, the Journal, magazines, and regional newspapers. Those products, all with non-tablet roots, have lots of ways to promote both themselves and their digital/iPad subscriptions. The Daily, with no web presence — and so, presumably, little search engine optimization — may be at a significant disadvantage from that perspective. On the other hand, it can use News Corp. promotional assets (but those do have real costs) or continue to invest in marketing to keep awareness high. Of course, if The Daily is a great product and its social axis (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) works, social search could offer a great deal of help there. And cheaply.

Ad revenue

Early tablet revenue was off the charts at an effective cost-per-thousand rate of 10 times that of website sales. Much of that early shine is wearing off, say some tablet news publishers, with some placements tossed into a print/online bundle in 2011. Does that mean that tablet rates will swoon to the low level of website rates? Not necessarily, but we don’t yet have enough data to know. Sponsorship (given high brand value and lower traffic) will inevitably be joined by a full array of video pre- and mid-rolls, behavioral targeting and re-targeting, and still-ascendant pay-for-performance — all the modern tricks of the trade.

So if the cost run-rate is about $15 to $18 million a year, and subscription revenues net at $7 million, News Corp. would need $8 to $11 million a year in ad revenues to break even. Certainly possible, if that 200,000 number is hit and sustained, but also a tough proposition as tablet newbies sample widely and are confronted by a world of paid choices.

Bottom line: Yes, The Daily can work. But for Murdoch, whose moxie even the biggest detractor from Fox News can admire, The Daily represents another test, another foray. His success has been mixed. Alesia didn’t work, so he abandoned it. MySpace is being sold off, at a low point in its trajectory, while the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal buy may indeed find significant new business success in the tablet age. And now there’s The Daily. It’s a grand lab for Murdoch. And the rest of us.

                                   
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