The Daily: Money Changes Everything

I admit it. I didn’t shell out a buck a week to read The Daily. In the split second I took to weigh the pros and cons of subscription, well, it came down as a no, for reasons I don’t remember. Maybe I read something negative about Rupert Murdoch or one of his trash magazines. Or perhaps I held onto the notion that content should be free.

Or maybe I just didn’t think it was worth it.
It’s as simple and as painful as that. The brutal truth is that you really have to bring it if you require people to pay for it. That and do a few crazy things to make people want it — because once you get the want then it really doesn’t matter how much crap you put up on the wall. We’ll still pay for it, and then some.

All things considered, the sorry plight of The Daily, which stopped publishing this week, does make me wonder about how it is publishers make money in this digital world. It’s not as easy as selling an ad anymore, and it’s far, far, more competitive, with hundreds of legitimate sources of information clamoring for a share of your brain matter.

It’s enough to make you want to twitch.
Ultimately, however, there are a few fundamental reasons why The Daily folded:

1. The “only” tag.
The world works differently now, and because The Daily was tablet exclusive, it married itself to one type of device. As we all know, this is a multi-screen world and we want the same content experience whether it’s on big, medium or little displays. Begin exclusive to one approach is, in hindsight, a poor strategy.

2. Old school staffing in a new world
The editorial bleed of The Daily was more than even News Corp. could take: an $80 million investment and a $4 million return in subscriptions. Ouch. The tragic thing is that it easily could have been different: News Corp. could have leveraged resources from other publications, for one, and anyway — that sort of olden time magazine building is no longer credible. You just don’t need to spend $500,000 a week to publish a daily digital periodical. What you need are smart and passionate souls who will give their lives for a paycheck and a byline. Digital publishing  — in fact, digital anything — is all about growing into your shoes slowly, being consistent and working hard. Ultimately, the Daily became a target instead of a skunkworks project allowed to adjust to the changing mobile landscape in order to develop the right kind of editorial product for the times.

3. The content mix wasn’t right
As admirable as it is to build an app devoted to 100 percent original content, it just plain is unnecessary. The digital model of content has shifted to one that mixes source content with original stuff, opinion and entertainment.  We people want to read the latest and greatest, and don’t really give a hoot who posted it first; we do however like your style so we prefer to read it through your filter.

Duh. Give us your spin on the story, update us on the news and share the link. Do that, and we all get to sing Kumbaya — we get what we want and your cost of editorial development goes way down. In this way, The Daily missed the boat on social sharing and commentary — which is sort of like going to a party and standing off, by yourself, for three hours.

4. The Daily as a brand had no value
The Daily struggled to gain a foothold as a brand in the SRO world of digital publishing. That matters — a lot. It serves to create an identity for the publication, helps to project the voice of the publication and, crucially, adds value to the experience of clicking on the icon.  Shoot. If I think I’ll get something good, I’d shell out a buck a week — maybe even two! But if I don’t know, I won’t — not because I’m cheap but rather because I’m busy, frazzled and not really paying attention. A pub like The Daily needed to get my attention and sell me on the sizzle, so that I switched from FlipBoard to The Daily every morning when I went to get my steak.

Sigh. But it was only a buck a week. And yet it failed.
For a million different reasons too few of us thought enough of it, or knew enough about it, to sacrifice those 99 cents. Ultimately, it makes me realize that to be successful in the world of digital publishing, you need hard, hard work, great luck and a razor thin budget to keep you hungry. If you doubt that, keep in mind that at the start of 2012, The Daily was the top-grossing iPad App publication, ahead of the New York Times and getting the largest share of $70,000 a week in revenue.  That’s more than enough to herald the experiment as a success, save for one thing:  Money, it turns out, really does change everything.

–Brian Chee



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