Can the iPad Save the Daily Newspaper?

February 3rd, 2011

In my youth, radio disk jockeys would laugh about the local papers, calling them “daily fish wrappers.” At the same time, the news departments of those stations were busy combing through the pages of those fish wrappers in search of leads for a story. In those days, the broadcast newspeople would largely “rip and read,” in other words, use wire service copy, rather than do any actual reporting and writing.

Nowadays, the steady decline of newspaper circulation and ad revenues continues. Yes, there are spots of income stabilization or minor circulation increases, but the trends are clear and certain. More and more people get their news from the Internet or those 24/7 cable news talking heads.

In keeping with that tradition, News Corporation’s CEO, Rupert Murdoch, joined Wednesday Apple in introducing the latest generation of news publications, The Daily, a subscription app for the iPad. For 99 cents a week or $39.99 per year, you get your regular fill of news and information in a digital format that preserves much of the features (or sections) of your typical daily paper.

This new in-app subscription feature, so far exclusive to The Daily, is very different from the way iPad publications have been handled up till now, which meant either free ad-supported versions, or regular editions that you had to buy as separate apps; a monthly magazine meant twelve different apps per year. As you might imagine, this purchasing method hasn’t been too successful.

Each edition of The Daily promises over 100 pages of news, entertainment, opinion, sports, all the reading matter you expect in your newspaper. Taking advantage of advanced digital technologies, you’ll find 360-degree photos, interactive charts, local news, weather and sports, and even a crossword puzzle. You’ll also be able to share stories on such social networks as Face-book and Twitter. In passing, it doesn’t appear that News Corp’s own network, MySpace, is part of the picture.

I expect you’ll be able to make hard copies of the stories you’ve read, or just save them on your iPad. Those of you who depend on your local newspaper for supermarket coupons, and ads for local firms, such as car dealers and consumer electronics outlets, may be disappointed, although there are no doubt great opportunities for interactive ads based on your location, assuming you allow The Daily to track that data. Or maybe I’m too old fashioned to expect people to care about what might be lost in the rush to the future of journalism.

I’m also going to avoid concerns of the apparent conservative bias Murdoch exhibits in some of his other news-oriented properties. I’d rather believe that The Daily will confine its opinions to the editorial pages, and run the rest of the publication following traditional journalistic values; in other words, coverage will be fair.

In the scheme of things, lots of hopes and dreams are riding on the success of The Daily. If a rapidly rising subscription base greets the arrival of this interactive digital newspaper, you can expect other publishers are going to want to get a piece of the action. That could mean subscription versions of The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and, perhaps, the hundreds of small and medium-sized papers that still dot the landscape in this country. I also suspect that publishers around the world will want to follow suit.

If The Daily, despite the modest subscription price and advance hype, fails to sustain itself on the long haul, it doesn’t mean the marketing plan is faulty. It may take time to find the right mix of content and presentation that will attract a wide audience of paying subscribers. I also wonder just how many papers will attempt to compete with The Daily in the first few months, or just wait on the sidelines to see how Murdoch’s venture fares on the long haul.

As for News Corporation, when they commit to a venture, they’ve been known to keep that commitment for years, even if it costs a bundle. Murdoch has reportedly dumped tens of millions of dollars into some projects, waiting years for them to pay off. It’s well known that Fox News, the controversial 24/7 cable network, was a money losing proposition for a number of years before ad revenues were sufficient to stop the flow of red ink. Murdoch’s tabloid paper in New York City, the New York Post, has been losing loads of money for years without any certainty it’ll ever become profitable. In that sense, you can almost compare News Corporation to Microsoft in the dedication to sustain money-losing products and services without giving up.

In contrast, Apple is known to even kill successful products if a better idea comes along. The Macintosh G4 Cube wasn’t successful, and so it was axed in less than a year, even though Steve Jobs appeared to have a personal liking to that clever reimagining of the original NeXT Cube. In contrast, the Apple TV, although no doubt profitable, remains a hobby because of relatively low sales.

In the end, whatever iPad digital publishing venture emerges triumphant, Apple can be content that they will earn their 30% from each and every subscription.

But I still wonder when or if the dream of the iPad replacing printed school textbooks will ever come to pass. I expected that to arrive soon after Apple’s iconic tablet computer was released, but haven’t heard much about it lately. If it happens, every child who has to lug a heavy backpack to and from school will be grateful.

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