Confessions of a The Daily subscriber

I was there when The Daily launched, and I’ve been a subscriber since day one. So it was with no small amount of disappointment that I learned yesterday that News Corp. was pulling the plug on The Daily less than two years into the experiment.

Jim sent me to cover the launch of the Daily, and I’ll take any excuse I can to visit New York City, especially if someone else is picking up the tab. On a wintery day in early February, 2011 at the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Rupert Murdoch and company unveiled the new product in front of a swarm of mainstream and tech journalists. Apple’s Eddy Cue joined him on stage too. The Daily was the first publication to support Apple’s then-nascent subscription system in iTunes, so a strong Apple presence made sense.

The Daily launched initially as a free service, with News Corp. promising to take it under a subscription umbrella and then kicking that can down the road for weeks. It made sense, because from the start, there were problems.

The first and most obvious issue was that the app itself was buggy. The Daily was initially quite prone to crashing. Eventually those issues got worked out, but by the time it did, I’m sure many early adopters had fled and weren’t anxious to give it another try.

Other flaws became apparent: The Daily leveraged content streamed from remote servers – video, for example. Even its weather and horoscope data was downloaded on the fly, so if your iPad lacked cell data connectivity, you’d see big gaps in the coverage.

Content was slow to load, too. I dreaded getting notifications from The Daily app that new content was available and asking me if I wanted to download it, because I could be sure that the app would slow to a crawl until it was done. They improved delivery times, but that lack of instant gratification, especially from a news app, was irritating.

That isn’t to say that I hated the Daily. I actually quite liked it. Some of their long form content was really good, and they’d occasionally run investigative pieces that were the rival of anything you’d see in any other print media.

There was a lot of content, too – daily news, long-form investigative journalism, entertainment news, technology, sports. Often times it was presented in novel ways – panoramic imagery, cleverly-designed image galleries, use of video content (which, like I said, was hampered if you were stuck on a Wi-Fi iPad and out of range of a network).

The Daily was hamstrung by its own paywall. It went out of its way to make it difficult to share information about those pieces, which is why you rarely if ever saw anyone link to The Daily’s articles. Sometimes I’d read genuinely insightful, interesting articles there, and when I’d go to share them, I’d find out I couldn’t. I understand The Daily’s need to maintain some sort of paywall in place, but they took it to an extreme.

Sometimes the content was crap, too. But you get that anywhere. And yeah, The Daily’s pedigree as a product of Rupert Murdoch immediately left a sour taste in some people’s mouths. But you can’t please everyone.

I’ve been part of the online tech press since 1994, when I started my own site, later selling it to MacCentral and then ending up at Macworld by way of acquisition. Prior to working at Macworld full-time, I was holding down an IT job for a newspaper publisher. Since 2009 I’ve been primarily back in the online publishing sphere. So over the past 18 years, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of changes in print and online publishing.

Some of those changes have been for the better, a lot of them have been for the worse. People want information, but have demonstrated over and over again that they’re not willing to pay for it like they once did, and are accustomed to getting the content delivered to them differently. I think that’s a lesson that The Daily stubbornly refused to accept – its entire model was built around the idea that people want daily news delivered to them on the iPad the same way they get it from newspapers. Newspaper circulations are shrinking, and the demographics for them show an audience of increasingly calcified, old white guys. These people aren’t going to make an iPad publication successful.

Certainly, there are people making money on iPad publishing, including some “dead tree” publishers who have made tablets work for them by leveraging existing strengths, developing new content delivery strategies and figuring out how the new technology can benefit them and their readers.

The Daily was a bold, audacious experiment that failed. But it was still worthwhile. We have seen and will continue to see successes in tablet publishing, but The Daily was unique in its scale and scope. It takes someone with the deep pockets of Rupert Murdoch to make something like The Daily happen. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again, but this time makes a lot of money for someone with the right vision and a long-term strategy for success.