Is all digital publishing doomed to bomb like The Daily?

Much has been written about the failure of The Daily. John Gruber’s piece is especially insightful. For those unfamiliar with The Daily, it was News Corps attempt to modernize newspaper publishing for the digital age. Thanks to that backing, it launched with much fanfare and participation from Apple. The Daily seemed to have all the pieces necessary to reinvent publishing from the outside. They had the backing of a major media company, but weren’t saddled by the legacy business model of a printed newspaper. They had writers, editors, designers and programmers on staff. Apple’s Newsstand solved the subscriber revenue problems that plague the web. The pricing was great too.


I downloaded The Daily as soon as it was available. My first impression was not disappointing. The main interface element was something called “The Carousel.” It was hard to use, and unresponsive. The Daily stuttered and sputtered so bad it was hard to use despite the reasonable GPU in the iPad. Issues were quite large and took too long to download. When an issue finally downloaded, they took too much time to render inside the application. The core use of this app, reading the news, was compromised by subpar performance and an ill-conceived navigation system.

I’ve been involved in enough technology product launches to be pretty forgiving towards products on day one. There is almost never enough time or resources to be true to your vision at launch. Engineers always want more time, and business managers want to enter the market place before the market is crowded. At some point you just have to ship. Unfortunately, The Daily’s problems weren’t restricted to the app’s quality (which did get better over time). The writing didn’t resonate with me either. The tech section was fine enough, but The Daily couldn’t decide if it was Time or People. There was too much celebrity gossip for my taste.  That’s not to say you can’t have a great publication centered around pop culture–you can. Instead, the problem is The Daily tried to mix hard news with pseudo-tabloid pulp in a way that I couldn’t get behind.

The sad thing is The Daily gained 100,000 subscribers with the corresponding revenue, but the capital burn rate of the company behind it was just too high.  The Daily didn’t go far enough to cast off the roots of a newspaper, and as a result revenues aren’t high enough to pay for production costs.

I really wanted The Daily to work. I kept my subscription even as I used the app less and less. At least The Daily produced something other than the glorified PDFs most magazines on the iPad serve, and I wanted other publishers to see the value in a more native format.

If you don’t work in publishing or media, Adobe makes most of the tools that power print production work flows. To help ease the transition for traditional media companies, Adobe offers a product/service called the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. DPS makes it relatively easy to produce iPad (and other tablet) content with some interactivity. Unfortunately, it also produces excessively large assets and often renders type as an image. Workflows dependent on DPS are part of the reason so many magazines on touch devices are Frankenstein’s monsteresque hybrids of a printed piece and the web. Don’t get me wrong, I see the business need served by DPS. I just think the result of that product today puts the value of a workflow over the experience of the reader.

The Daily boldly tried to change this and failed. Other media companies have also built their own native apps, but are still encumbered with confusing navigation and large issue download sizes. Where does that leave us now?

The web is still a very challenging place to gain paying subscribers, for reasons that have been documented all over the web. Tablets still offer a great format for reading, but the attempts by media companies to take advantage of this still fall short. Consumers still crave more in-depth, insightful coverage on the news that what the web offers and have no convenient, digital means by which to get that content. There has to be a better way.

The Magazine is that better way. Marco Arment’s experiment in publishing is a fantastic demonstration of what the technology driving touch-based publications should look like. It’s light, responsive and nimble. The Magazine scales really well across screen sizes. New issues load rapidly. Marco himself argues that comparisons between The Daily and The Magazine aren’t fair, but I’m more inclined to agree with Craig Mod. The Magazine shows the way forward for publishing.  Smaller teams producing more focused content, without the constraints of a printing press to drive the release cycle. Marco cites The New Yorker and The Atlantic as editorial coverage done right. I subscribe to both magazines, and I really don’t like the digital experience offered by either. Marco says the web is the best source of news, but I like to catch up on the day sitting on my couch after work. Today, that means hopping from site to site in Safari, but I’d rather have something a little more curated and focused. I’d pay for better news coverage. Such a publication would never win the BREAKING NEWS battle, but Twitter is a better breaking news source than the web.

I value the information and insight I get from traditional news media outlets. The problem is they are completely optimized toward giving me that experience on dead trees delivered on trucks. Give me the insights of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Rolling Stone. Stun me with the photojournalism I see in Time. Let me see a little deeper in the news cycle like I do with The New York Times, but do it with an app as simple, easy and fast as The Magazine.

My iTunes account is at the disposal of any media company who can pull that off.

The President on Reddit

After the President Obama made a surprise visit to Reddit yesterday to host an AMA, I knew the post I planned for this morning was going to get bumped.  Whatever you may say about his policies, I don't think anyone can deny that the President is a master marketer.  His appearance on Reddit yesterday cemented this–Romney and Obama are not fighting on equal footing in the realm of ones and zeros.

The President on Reddit

The President on Reddit

The Verge posted a better writeup than I could hope to produce.  I'd suggest reading it to get a top line on what went down, and what this means in terms of marketing.  I'd rather focus on some of the specific things the President and his team did right in approaching a community like Reddit.

One of the most important lessons organizations must learn about social media is the power of culture.  Different sites and communities around the web have different norms and etiquette, and you really need to understand the law of the land before you approach a given site.  Old Spice has done this really well. Even though social media communities can be hostile to marketing and advertising, Old Spice managed to get near universal accolades from every site from YouTube to Reddit and even 4Chan.

Here's how Obama & Co insured their foray into Reddit was a success.:

  • They selected the right community.  Supporters of Obama and Ron Paul are over-represented among the nerdy crowd on Reddit.  There are plenty of conservatives and Romney fans on Reddit, but they don't have the same voice they would have in the general population.  Choosing Reddit isn't partisan in the way would be, but it's still friendly territory for the President.
  • They used the right venue.  Reddit is organized into communities called subreddits that are organized around a topic or style of communicating.  The IAMA subreddit is for As Me Anything posts where someone answers questions posed by the crowd.  No question is off limits, although you don't have to answer anything you don't feel comfortable with.
  • They didn't announce it too early.  Obama's last minute announcement lead credibility to his participation in the community by making sure only existing members of the community had a change to interact with the President.
  • It was a well executed AMA.  Obama did everything right, from verifying his identity to picking a good user name.  Obama provided updates in the original posts and even referenced the not bad meme in his close.
  • Obama didn't venture too far off scripts, but his replies were clearly not massaged by an aide-typos and all.  I enjoyed reading a thread where someone corrected his grammar and then was chided for it.
  • Obama answered questions that resonate with the Reddit community. The top question was about NASA funding–one of the topics with universal support across all of Reddit.  Most of us won't be happy until NASA is 90% of the Federal budget.  He also answered a question about the White House beer recipe, which is another crowd favorite.

To me this was a historic moment.  It was a big win for Reddit, and helped Obama as well.  More than that it showed how much technology can be used to connect the public with its leaders.  I hope to see more of our elected leaders on forums like this–and hopefully not during the election cycle.