Many took delight in today’s announcement that News Corp (NWS) would be shuttering the Daily, the first paid tablet-only news product. I take no pleasure in seeing that product fail.
I’m biased in that I had the opportunity to work with the Daily team while at Crowd Fusion. Yet beyond getting to know many talented people, I got the chance to see them doing some really great things.
As many publishers have discovered, it’s incredibly difficult to differentiate a general news publication. Just the other day, USA Today CEO Larry Kramer was widely quoted as saying he would not charge for USA Today on the web, as its not unique enough content:
"There is so much national news out there,” Kramer said. “I think we would lose more than we would gain.”
The Daily struggled to differentiate its content. When it was first launched, the editorial content was a bit weak. But they definitely strengthened their editorial during their two year run. More importantly, the Daily, more than virtually any other publication, has experimented with ways to best leverage the tablet environment.
Portrait or Landscape? While cost-cutting forced the Daily to shift to “portrait only” last summer, the Daily initially had two complete versions of every page – one optimized for portrait (vertical) mode, the other for landscape (horizontal). It’s not just that the page could be viewed either way, but that they actually did a full layout of each edition in both portrait and landscape mode so that every page could be optimized for either. This enabled features and functionality that would only work in landscape mode, for example.
Visual news While Pinterest and Instagram have made the image the key element of the mobile web, the Daily was early to realize that tablets were a visual experience and that text-heavy pages would not fly. Today, many others have followed suit – Reuters Wider Image, the Guardian’s PictGrid and others – but the Daily was early to that decision. And it makes reading the Daily on an iPad much more enjoyable than reading a typical newspaper app.
Video content Again, the Daily may not be unique in this, but they were quick to realize that HD video was a key aspect of tablet news consumption.
Navigation The Daily simplified their navigation this summer, but the app offered multiple forms of navigation at its start. A news carousel, similar to the iTunes cover flow, greeted new readers, while a traditional table-of-contents was available as well.
360 Degree Photos The Daily’s 360-degree photos were another way in which this daily newspaper became more of a visual magazine. Whether swiping your way through the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or the surface of Mars, these panoramic images were compelling.
Did the Daily have its faults? No question. The editorial content got better, but was never unique enough to make it a must-read for me. The navigation features were cool but remained clunky at times. And despite adding social sharing and other features, they were never able to fully integrate the app with the web. And while they exposed all of their functionality to advertisers, it seemed few were able to come up with creative campaigns that took full advantage of the device.
Update: Ceros (formerly Crowd Fusion) Chief Scientist Brian Alvey adds his thoughts to the Daily's legacy from a technology standpoint. While some suggest the $30 million per year cost of the Daily was high, noting that:
"...that’s a great R&D lab within a $60 billion company. If you spend $30 million every year to test every new platform that’s actually cheap.”
In the end, all of these features were not enough to attract the 500,000 paid subscribers that News Corp set as its break-even goal. It’s really hard to get consumers to pay for news, regardless of the container. But many of these features are now prominent in other news apps, by News Corp and its competitors. The Wall Street Journal has begun adding 360 panoramic images to its iPad app, and countless publishers are investing in more video content.
And while it’s easy to poke fun at the failure of this well-funded startup effort, I would instead commend News Corp for doing what’s really hard for large companies to do – innovate. At a time when most publisher's tablet and mobile apps are Zinio-like replicas of print, the Daily attempted to create a product that new and exciting.I hope this failure won't make other publisher afraid to even try.