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4 takeaways from The New York Times’ new digital strategy memo
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Feb. 2, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?

Technically, I’m on vacation in warmer climes this week, far away from the northeast’s snowpocalypse du jour. More honestly, I was checking out the launch of The Daily like every other future-of-news nerd.

I wish News Corp. the best — in part because I love the investment they’ve put into the product, in part because I think paid-content tablet products will be a big part of news’ future, and in part because there are some very talented people working on the project. It’s great to see projects with this sort of ambition that are tied to the generation of new content, not just the restructuring of existing stories.

But I must confess I came away from the announcement a little underwhelmed — not just because the app seems a little laggy and unresponsive (that’s fixable), but because I’m not sold that there’s a vision for who, exactly, The Daily is trying to reach and what problem, exactly, it’s trying to solve.

Here are three quick questions raised by the debut of The Daily:

What will it take to really develop a new user interface? At launch, The Daily pushes the carousel metaphor, an infinite strip of pages to view, not unlike the tab metaphor of iPhone/iPad Safari or the card metaphor of WebOS. It’s a UI that takes its cues from print — which isn’t a bad thing, when the alternative is the constant click-and-back that most news websites encourage, and which leaves many people who visit a news site’s homepage scanning headlines and engaging with none of them. But The Daily’s interface still feels short of a revolution.

Will The Daily learn from my habits and feed me more stories of the sort I’ve been proven to enjoy? (After all, an app generates far better user-behavior data than any website can.) Will The Daily be smart about alerts, interrupting me only to tell me news it thinks I might actually care about? (As opposed to, say, New York Times alert emails, which think I care more about the state legislature in Albany than I, a Massachusetts resident, actually do.) Will The Daily push me from one article to another not only based on what’s next in the queue, but according to what’s most likely to interest me?

At first glance, at least, The Daily seems to marry a mass-media sensibility to tablet tech, in a way that still leaves plenty of room for future revolutions. I’m sure the staff of The Daily is thinking about solutions to these questions and hoping to iterate the user interface in new and innovative ways. But I was hoping that The Daily — well funded, with plenty of talented people on board — would bring us closer to the new interface the news really needs. I don’t see that in version 1.0.

Does the tabloid sensibility fit the iPad? While News Corp. may be home to properties like The Wall Street Journal, the design language of The Daily is surprisingly tabloid: big headlines, big pictures, short stories, and a populist feel. The sections — with “Gossip” given a high second billing to news — seem much more New York Post than WSJ. Is that the right choice for iPads, which (at least at the moment) disproportionately attract a richer, more content-sensitive audience than something like the Post would? My gut instinct was that The Daily would aim more at a high-end audience than it seems to be. (My most skeptical moment in today’s event came when editor Jesse Angelo said that The Daily sees its target audience as “everybody,” which seems an approach born more out of mass media experience than the niches digital devices by their nature create. Entrepreneurs who say their target audience is “everybody” typically end up reaching something closer to “nobody.” There has to be a leading edge of adopters who serve as evangelists for everyone else.)

The length of the stories strikes me as the biggest concern. If the iPad has proven good at anything, it’s at creating longer consumption sessions — app users spend more time reading more stories than their equivalent web users. Apps like Instapaper have created an environment for longer reading sessions. But The Daily’s content, at least initially, seems to be stuck in short pieces, infographics, and the sort of paragraph-level content that you see in the front-of-book sections of magazines. Nothing wrong with that, but it seems to be more of a smartphone strategy (quick, of the moment) than a tablet strategy (lean-back, discursive). It also makes it harder for The Daily to compete with the free web, where there’s absolutely no shortage of quick bursts of content to caulk in the free spaces of your day.

What’s the use case? I wonder how The Daily will actually be used. Is it for the breakfast table? The commute on a subway or in the passenger seat? Evening relaxation time, which seems like the most common usage of the iPad?

To push people into paying for news in a digital wrapper — something few are used to — I believe The Daily will have to find a way to seem essential. Not paying your 99 cents a week will have to seem like a mistake — you’ll be missing out on water cooler conversation, or stories important to your life, or something. Because even as The New York Times and others drop behind some version of a paywall, there will always be free alternatives available for the basics of what’s going on today. (NPR and CNN, to name two, are completely at peace with a free broadcast model.) Angelo said during today’s event that he expects to break stories, and I suspect that’s what The Daily will need to do to get noticed. Without a special alignment to a specific use case, or the sort of journalism that will get noticed outside the app’s walls, I suspect it will be difficult for The Daily to get traction.

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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