The Daily: It Ain’t Much, But It Matters

Conflicted. Uncertain. Apprehensive. These words well describe my feelings about The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s splashy entrée to the world of purely digital publishing via the Apple iPad. Virtually everything about this new periodical is a mess, with one exception. One vital aspect that the media mogul nailed better than anyone else so far.

And “so far” is a major matter when considering the merits of The Daily. The attempts that have come before it on the iPad (Conde Nast’s anemic, Adobe-crafted magazine apps) and the desktop (noble, early efforts like Zinio) have been failures. As a whole, they’ve been poor digital reproductions of print publications, irritating readers with wonky interface mechanics, poor accessibility, and price tags equal that of the newsstand editions. No one hated paper enough to put up with it.

So any praise given The Daily must be understood in the context of a technological transition that has lagged on for years of frustrating disappointment. When such situations are drawn out long enough, even the smallest progress feels a bit revelatory. In this case, the paltry revelation is pricing.

Despite The Daily’s relatively thin, hyperbole-laden, right-skewing content, 99 cents a week seems an eminently reasonable price to pay for an updated-through-the-day, mixed-media news magazine. Murdoch appears to have learned an important lesson: in a bit-based marketplace, the baseline for everything is “free”.

Indeed, in a world where breaking news is best captured by whatever mobile phone is closest to the event, and where those who were once sources can tell their own stories in their own words, traditional journalism has gone from a practical necessity to a philosophical question. Do we still need a professionally produced 24-hour news cycle? Should we let Twitter break the stories and leave bloggers to sift through them for meaning? Either way, not much of anyone wants to pay newsstand prices while debating the point, and The Daily deftly sidesteps that problem.

Sadly, the business model is the only thing about The Daily that truly works. The app is slow to launch, and sluggish at downloading each new issue, even over wifi. Animations are crude and sluggish, making the iPad perform like an oversized iPhone 3G when scrolling through the default “page carousel.” Navigational swipes and taps are reasonably chosen, but the omnipresent delay in responding to those gestures kills the experience. Text can’t be resized and pages can’t be zoomed, making the app’s complete lack of support for iOS’s built-in accessibility system a deal-breaker for many with low vision. Like I said, it’s a mess.

But it’s a hopeful mess, one that should serve as a signpost on our way to better developing a 21st century system of news gathering and dissemination. And it gives me an excellent opportunity to write something I never thought I’d write.

Thank you, Mr. Murdoch.

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