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

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.

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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
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  • Brian Hayashi

    The Daily appears to be addressing the problem of how to establish a 24×7 relationship with its readers, as well as how to innovate the pay wall. Is it successful? We’ll find out, but hopefully Verizon’s sponsorship of my first two weeks for free wasn’t a quid pro quo for labeling their 4G ad as ‘News’ in the opening carousel.

  • Joshua Benton

    I sincerely wish them luck, Brian, and we will find out. But just speaking personally, I didn’t see anything today that would make me want to sign up for even 99 cents a week. But it’s somewhat unfair to judge them at launch — they’ll have growing pains, just like any launch.

    The biggest surprise to me was that The Daily seems to be aiming more mass-market than I’d expected. I think when you’re asking people to pay online, you need to be far more targeted than The Daily seems to be — whether that target is up-market or down-market or something in between or outside those bounds. (It was interesting to see the FT reporter in the audience ask a targeting-related question to Murdoch and get batted down — Murdoch seems committed to reaching everybody, which doesn’t seem wise to me. Then again, Murdoch has made infinitely more money than I have hawking news to the masses than I have, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

  • Barbara Miller

    Enjoyed the update and opinion on The Daily.
    Just a reminder–some, not all do pay for NPR, though not per listen, and we pay for CNN too.
    With cable we pay and have commercials. I went for many years with only broadcast tv and consider returning.

    I don’t underestimate Murdoch, though he is not always right. With Tablet and smartphone market expanding beyond Apple and his “everybody” reach in more than one nation–he may be anticipating the younger audiences reading his tabloid pubs online. He is a big picture guy.

    When we view him as the tabloid guy, we forget he is the Economist guy. When we view him as Mr Fox n
    News, we forget he is the Bart Simpson and Family Guy and House guy. Nobody seems to forget that he is the WSJ guy, mostly because they seem annoyed and can’t forget. And he is the Harper guy too.
    I thought this would be like the launch of USA Today–a credible generic product.

    Josh–how many readers, nationwide are there for the more populist style local papers, tabloids and otherwise? Aside from a more educated elite early adopter, there must be millions of folks out there who want to read this type of news.

    Maybe he can also have it feed into someone’s local Murdoch paper so you get a nice combo of the national, world and local news and columns.
    I wonder if there is a deal if you already subsribe to one of his other pubs.

  • Bryan M.

    Joshua, I am really curious as to why you wish them well when News Corp. has done so much to bend the spine of journalism in a direction that is anti-truth?

    I won’t be giving them a dime of my money.

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  • Brian Hayashi

    If you were at Web 2.0, you might have heard the snickering at Ari Emanuel’s assertion that content owners should be paid for their work. Reasonable discourse relies on having a diversity of viable newsrooms to lead the way. And while I don’t want a world where every newsroom is ruled by Murdoch, I see a world whose only perspectives are anti-Murdoch to be equally chilling.

    As far as the mass-market approach, I’m reminded of a talk that TV Guide CEO John Evans made in 1992, some 12 years before his passing in 2004. It’s easier to start off broad and then launch new products based on red-hot sub-segments, rather than the reverse.

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  • Martin Langeveld

    As to the use case, I answered as follows on Quora to a question asking who will read The Daily:

    Seconding what Rakesh [Agrawal] said (“hip older citizens”). Here’s why: The early negative-tilting reviews from tech and journalism types mention things like the news from Egypt on day one being a day old already. But that’s because techies and journos care about that and are checking on Egypt five times a day. 90% of iPad buyers are not techies and journos and are fine with a daily dose of news. [And revolutions in Egypt, or the equivalent, don't happen every day.] Younger iPad users tend to have their digital news habits already established and are not likely to switch to The Daily. But older folks are increasingly joining younger people by ditching their landline, and they are going to justify their iPad purchase (and improve their green creds) by ditching their paper subscription. They might go for Ongo or a New York Times app, or pick any of many other options, or they can try the The Daily.

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  • Michelle Licudine

    A big AMEN to this. I personally haven’t seen The Daily, but the same thinking applies to *any* product. I’ve worked on the digital side at a newspaper for 10 years. Often, I’ve asked “who’s this for?” and received mixed answers; yet production moved ahead anyway. Without those target users in mind — as well as how they’ll use it and what will make them miss it if it goes away — you lack the guidance to make content, pricing and marketing decisions. Identify your target audience and help it all fall into place!

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  • Anonymous

    Or….they might spend all the money doing al this and be left homeless. Well, then they’ll read the papers from the streeet or garbage can.

  • Anonymous

    Or….they might spend all the money doing al this and be left homeless. Well, then they’ll read the papers from the streeet or garbage can.

  • Anonymous

    Or….they might spend all the money doing al this and be left homeless. Well, then they’ll read the papers from the streeet or garbage can.

  • Susan Steward-Barre

    After reading “The Tide Detergent theft for drugs story” on “The Daily”, which I found first on “Yahoo”, I now know that the news business is the same today as it was when William Randolph Hearst was the big wheel of syndicated newspapers.  Not much has changed.  “Print it and people will believe it”….and besides if TIDE Detergent is an advertiser, well, they sure got their advertising dollars worth on that story.

    I won’t be following anything on “The Daily” and I certainly won’t be paying them anything for the shlock they are dishing out.

    I wonder how successful they are?  Does anyone know?


  • Anonymous

     How about approaching the problem with DMAIC?