Review: News Corp. The Daily
If this isn't yet a news publishing maxim, it should be: when the smartest section of a daily periodical is its sports section, something's really wrong. Built by a company with high-tech ambitions and a large collection of "legacy" news publications, The Daily (Free + $1-$40 subscription) is News Corporation's latest attempt to bring its trademarked tabloid sensibilities to the world of iPad publishing, leveraging a special partnership with Apple to get a head start on selling subscriptions through the App Store.
Because The Daily received unusual promotional considerations from Apple, we decided to give it a thorough review today, despite the fact that we would normally find its content relatively easy to ignore. In short, if The Daily’s first editions are representative of what this new publication will be offering editorially, News Corp. should quickly offer the app’s intriguing technologies to its other newspapers, and either radically fix this one or pull the plug before it starts hemorrhaging.
The Concept: Mix A Daily Newspaper With A Magazine Format And Multimedia Content
News Corp.‘s launch event for The Daily left no doubt that the company has invested plenty of time and money in the app’s success. Company CEO/Chairman Rupert Murdoch revealed that he had already written off a $30-million initial investment and given the publication a $500,000 weekly budget, which is a lot of money to put behind an app designed to cost a subscriber only 99 cents per week or $40 per year. During the event, Murdoch suggested that the savings were achieved by discarding old school printing presses, trucks, and distribution systems, enabling The Daily to be offered at a cost of only 14 cents per subscriber per day—assuming that subscriptions met projections, and that the content was compelling enough to get people to subscribe.
What did News Corp.‘s investment actually buy? A dedicated, newspaper-style editorial staff with its own photographic, illustration, and technology teams, whose daily product looks more like a weekly issue of Us or Time Magazine than The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, the dollars are paying for a video anchorperson who provides a very brief summary of several top stories, video personnel to produce additional video clips, and audio narrators who read excerpts from certain articles aloud as an audiobook-style digest. The latter three elements are the most conspicuous ways News Corp. has evolved The Daily past the dozens of monthly magazines that have created iPad-specific digital versions, but there are others, discussed below.
To offset the low subscription prices, each day’s edition of The Daily includes full-page advertisements; the first two weeks of free availability are sponsored by Verizon. While the ads vary from quickly skipped flat images to animations and video clips, a number of these sponsored pages slow down your movement through the publication, taking readers away from the editorial content in a more intrusive manner than traditional web banners. News Corp. has suggested that it hopes to increase the presence of advertising until ads achieve a “magic” 50%/50% contribution balance with subscription revenues, so users can expect that future issues will contain more ads than the earliest editions.
All of The Daily’s content is tied together through two navigation systems. News Corp. refers to the first as “the Carousel,” a cheery-looking knock-off of Apple’s Cover Flow that squeezes thumbnails of three pages onto the screen below The Daily’s logo and current weather information, then above a bar that points to the publication’s six sections.
You can click on an arrow to the right of this bar to open a tray with icons for the aforementioned video anchorperson and audio summaries, as well as fast forward and shuffle icons that do little more than animate the carousel’s display of pages in a choppy, relatively useless manner. A fifth icon lets you recover articles that you’ve saved—currently the only method the app includes to let you see content from past issues—and a sixth provides access to settings. Here, you can turn breaking news notifications on or off, set the app to auto-launch the video anchor when it starts if you’re on a Wi-Fi connection, and enter personal details for your daily horoscope and zip code. This is also where The Daily notes your current subscription status, and will enable you to make quick-click purchases of an additional week or year of subscription content.
The second navigation system comes up only after you’ve tapped a page thumbnail or on any of the bar’s section names, which calls up the first article in that section. At this point, the navigation bar shifts to the top of the screen and adds a progress stripe. Tapping on the stripe calls up five or six page thumbnails at a time, scrolling left or right to let you move through the issue in the order of the sections. While this collection of pages is faster and more intuitive to swipe through than the Carousel, it loses the ability to tell you the section you’re currently looking at, and what’s coming up in either the left or right direction.
In sum, neither of The Daily’s navigation systems works all that well to provide immediate access to all of its content. The Carousel feels as if it was designed to provide the appearance of an interesting starting point for navigating content without having the speed, number of simultaneous page images, or depth that it really needed; moreover, elements such as a traditional cover page and table of contents feel displaced by the Carousel rather than integrated into it. Once you’re inside an article, moving directly to another article without learning the art of combining a section tap, thumbnail browsing, and a page tap doesn’t feel quite right. The interface needs some significant reconsideration in order to beat or even rival ones we’ve seen from other publications.
Though News Corp.‘s media outlets alternate between acknowledging their conservative skews and presenting themselves as moderate, “fair and balanced” sources of news, the rest of the world understands that almost all of its periodicals and programming carry deliberate biases: they tar liberals and liberalism, welcome and promote even fringe conservative groups, and—at least in some publications—use brazenly anti-intellectual techniques to appeal or pander to their readers. It was therefore no surprise that journalists at The Daily’s launch event inquired whether this would be an “upmarket” or “downmarket” publication, with a conservative or centrist editorial position, questions dodged by News Corp. representatives with answers such as “read us everyday and you’ll see.” A subsequent inquiry was met with a claim that The Daily was going to be a patriotic American publication—said with jingoist verve.
It’s obvious from the early editions that News Corp. is aiming closer to the downmarket sensibilities of its New York Post, The Sun, and News of the World tabloids than its more widely respected Wall Street Journal. The headline and introduction to one of The Daily’s first articles—in the “news” section—referred to Citibank Vice Chairman Peter Orszag as “Obama’s No. 1 nerd,” which precedes a section devoted to Gossip, an almost comically pithy Opinion section (sample pull quote: “Of course, we can’t all be Benjamin Franklin. Strike that. Sure we can.”), and the Arts & Life section, which mixes disposable articles (sample: “We want candy”) with movie reviews and tappable photos of fashion accessories. Precious little in The Daily is written to appeal to college-educated people, and in the first two editions, a surprising amount of it had been written or edited into a mush of junk.
It’s only somewhat surprising that The Daily’s star attraction is the Sports section, which benefits from some of the best writing, photographs, animations, videos, and layouts in the entire publication. Deftly mixing the work of original columnists with realtime Twitter feeds from or about athletes, poll and trivia questions, pages with mixes of two- and one-paragraph mini-news, and plenty of great visual content, this section has something to offer traditional and iPad-savvy sports fans alike. In addition to looking like a completely different publication from the rest of The Daily, the Sports section includes a realtime sports ticker, a betting line sheet, and a page that lets readers customize headlines, photos, tweets, and schedules for their favorite teams. Though nothing here is strictly unique to The Daily—and a lot, including news and much of the photography, is taken from wire services—the fact that it’s all in one nicely designed section is a real plus.
That said, it’s frankly almost shameful that the Sports section would be the smartest part of any publication, let alone this one; it’s as if News Corp. aims to avoid deep thinking unless the subject matter concerns the personal life of a quarterback. Some of the article content is so outright dumb—the first edition’s Dull But Significant and Weird But True sections were just a couple of particularly glaring examples—that the text felt ill-suited to the classical serifed body fonts used in the publication. If The Daily gave the same depth of coverage to a political issue as it did when digitally animating potential Super Bowl passes, it could actually make learning about the news interesting.
A Few Notes on Technology and Design Consistency
There are a few other parts of The Daily that merit further discussion. One is its interesting “not an island” approach to the web, by which News Corp. intends to try and walk a fine line between being an iPad-exclusive publication and offering links to and from the outside world. The Daily’s day of articles are downloaded into the application on initial synchronization and supposedly will be updated on an as-needed basis throughout each day so that you needn’t go to the web to gather additional content; however, you can mail links to web-accessible versions of the articles to friends, as well as creating Facebook and Twitter posts for them within the application. While this unorthodox system may well promote a wider spread of Daily content than would have been achieved if its content was kept entirely from the web, there’s presently very little inside the publication that truly demands the iPad’s touch interactivity enough to justify its existence solely within an iPad-exclusive app. Like many people—including ourselves—News Corp. obviously believes that the iPad is a fantastic device for consuming text, images, and multimedia content; however, like most of its predecessors, the company has not yet figured out an actual justification for restricting that content to just this one distribution mechanism.
Additionally, there are some fairly inconsistent user interface elements within each edition of The Daily. Most of the pages can be viewed in portrait or landscape orientation, with automatic adjustments of the text and graphic elements to match the way the device is being held. But oddly, some pages specifically state that they’ll display different views depending on orientation: scrolling photos in landscape mode, and the text story in portrait mode. Other sections have pages that scroll to provide access to multiple pages, like a newspaper article.
On a positive note, this “anything goes” approach gives some creative license to the designers tasked with handling a specific segment of the publication, but it creates navigational issues and confusion for the reader. We experienced numerous and seemingly random crashes of the app during the first two days of content testing, and most seemed to be related to page transitions or buggy multimedia elements.
Though The Daily effectively buries its comment pages behind each spread’s top-of-screen sharing icon, registration enables you to read and create comments for individual articles. In a neat twist, The Daily allows you to record voice comments rather than typing things—a cool innovation that saves on typing but reduces the searchability of comment content. It also allows for humor, including stuff that you might not want to be hearing. On the launch day edition, one user mocked a photograph of Oprah Winfrey as having “crazy eyes,” complete with a crazy voice. Depending on what else gets posted, this could turn out to be a signature or terrible feature of The Daily.
One final note on The Daily’s multimedia elements concerns the video, audio, and thumbnail image content, all of which really need additional work. As the application apparently streams its anchorperson video, pixelization and choppiness tend to dominate the image for the first seconds of the only brief summary, and there’s too little here to watch as anything other than an introduction to the day’s news. Other videos, which seem deliberately free-form and understructured at best, more often than not fall short. On the first day, the male professional reader hired by The Daily to provide voiceovers for certain stories sounded flummoxed by the sometimes pithy, casual words he’s reading—a vocal butting of heads between the publication’s upmarket personnel and downmarket content; a female reader on the second day sounded better, but tense. And finally, the thumbnail images used for Carousel page previews are overly grainy, as if they were magnified too much for the original resolution and compression they were designed to be displayed with. Each of these elements of the app detracts from The Daily’s presentation, but with News Corp.‘s budget, they should all be relatively straightforward to fix. The individual pages of the publication look comparatively optimized for the iPad’s screen.
Despite all the hype that preceded The Daily’s launch, and the considerable amount of money invested in it to date, the actual publication contains very little content—editorial or technological—to set it apart from thousands of other news publications already in the App Store. Thus far, it has come up with only a handful of features that might hook some iPad users, but they’re mixed into an application that’s a chore to navigate through and occasionally painful to actually read.
Despite whatever else has been said about The Daily, the initial editions indicate that it will contain less gravitas than a copy of USA Today, less original gossip and fashion content than an issue of People Magazine, and only token editorial contributions to save it from accusations of an anti-liberal, anti-intellectual bias. It’s a traditional tabloid for the digital age, and the fact that most of what’s here can be found elsewhere and in better form for free doesn’t inspire confidence in its future. But not for the number of fart and Idiot Test applications that have been sold in the App Store at $1 a pop, we’d write off the possibility that the low weekly asking price alone will help it to succeed.
All of that leads us to conclude that had The Daily not received special consideration from Apple itself, its launch would have come and gone without creating a blip on most iPad users’ radars. While it’s not exactly a mystery why Apple—a promotional partner with News Corp. for American Idol, and one of its only TV show rental partners for Apple TV—would offer this of all companies preferential treatment in both beta testing and early access to paid subscription services, it’s embarrassing to think that Steve Jobs would have deemed this particular product “terrific,” as Rupert Murdoch claimed. If that’s true, Jobs’s famed Reality Distortion Field has officially expanded past the edges of plausibility. Our advice: look past the hype by skipping a subscription to this publication. Support companies and periodicals that bring high-quality content to the table, with or without Apple’s involvement.