article

02.02.11

The Daily: Rupert Murdoch's New Toy

The Daily may be sleek, with its glamorous video anchor, high-res photos, and fancy graphics. But beyond the glitz, the new iPad “newspaper,” which launched today, is more old media than new. Howard Kurtz and Brian Ries report.

He may be peddling a product available only to a small fraction of the population, but Rupert Murdoch is riding a tsunami of publicity.

With today’s launch of The Daily—a “newspaper,” using that term loosely, designed solely for the iPad—he has a small army of tech writers, media critics, and semi-employed kibitzers sounding off on whether it will alter the journalistic landscape as we know it.

So does this thing live up to the hype?

Well, it seems pretty snazzy—more magazine than newspaper, 360-degree rotating photos, video and audio reports that mimic television and radio. Stories can be shared on Twitter and Facebook with a flick of the screen. Murdoch told reporters he had to “completely reimagine our craft”—and is offering this revolutionary content, if you act now, for just 14 cents a day!

But the thing has built-in weaknesses, which the News Corp. team labored mightily to play down, even as Murdoch—whose remarks, in a bit of corporate synergy, were carried live on Fox News—drew praise from Steve Jobs and the Apple team that helped make the product a reality.

First, the good news: It’s pretty. Pages float by, either automatically or by touch, in what’s called the “carousel,” and expand to full screen with the swipe of an index finger.

Sports fans can customize their feed to display stories, schedules, pictures, and tweets about their favorite teams, instantly localizing the product. There are sections for games (crosswords and Sudoku) and, naturally, gossip. And you can easily browse celebrities’ Twitter pages.

One surprise: At the presser at New York’s Guggenheim Museum Tuesday morning, executives said much of The Daily’s content will be available on the Web—minus the tablet-tailored apps—for subscribers willing to pay. So the iPad-less are not totally out of luck. (The paywall, they say, will be lifted for those sharing links through Twitter and Facebook, much as Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal allows Google searchers in for free.)

News moves at warp speed these days; a once-a-day product, no matter how interesting, is going to seem as static as the paper on your doorstep.

Now, the reservations: Its dailyness is a major handicap. News moves at warp speed these days; a once-a-day product, no matter how interesting, is going to seem as static as the paper on your doorstep when the web is buzzing with the latest Egyptian protests, winter storm damage, or stock market gyrations.

Jesse Angelo, the former New York Post staffer who’s been tapped as The Daily’s editor, insisted that there would be “updates throughout the day” and that “this is not a once-a-day, static product.” But his tone suggested that these would be limited to major breaking news, as he added that he doesn’t like the experience of a constantly updating site—which is the essence of the web.   

The Daily still has the feel of a gated community, in part because it lives primarily as an app within a stand-alone gadget. News Corp.’s Jon Miller tried to knock down such criticism, declaring: “The Daily is not an island.” But it was hard to find links to other Web sites in the debut edition. And even if that changes, The Daily’s fate will clearly be tied to the success of the Apple tablet (the company sold 15 million last year) and its imitators.

Another potential drawback: Our crack team had difficulty downloading the app, and found the animations slow and jerky. Twitter is abuzz with complaints about bugginess. This is a common problem with graphics-heavy applications, and one that could make Daily consumption a frustrating affair, depending on your Wi-Fi connection.

Inside the cavernous halls of the Guggenheim, dozens of various handlers—all dressed head to toe in black—stood waiting to meet their guests, giving the impression of an exclusive Apple launch. Some held iPads, others donned cheap black plastic headsets, and a few held The Daily-logoed clipboards nervously in hand.

Murdoch has hired about 100 staffers—including New York Post gossip czar Richard Johnson and New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones—and spent $30 million on startup costs, with a budget of $25 million for the next year. The question is whether they can produce content—up to 100 pages a day, executives say—that is significantly more compelling than what’s available, free of charge and up to date, on a thousand web sites.

Angelo promises “some attitude” and “some punch.” The inaugural front page—“Falling Pharaoh”—offers a striking shot of an Egyptian protestor atop a statue. The lead story (“Mubarak: I’ll Quit”) is followed by three Egypt sidebars, none more than five paragraphs. The Mubarak dispatch, from a Cairo correspondent, is written in terse, tabloid-style prose with little flair

There are stories on the monster snowstorm pummeling the country and the recycled news of ex-budget director Peter Orszag becoming an investment banker; a video feature on imprisoned murderers making kids toys; and a Boxes & Briefs section of random quotes, statistics, tidbits and infographics. Feature pieces focus on spring fashion and wild-haired football players, along with a smart if overblown look at Indian films taking on extremism. (“Just as the Beatles and rock ’n’ roll helped bring down the Kremlin, Bollywood might prove to be the undoing of Osama bin Laden and his noxious brand of Islamic fundamentalism.”)

Then there’s the opinion side. Asked about reports that The Daily’s editorial pages will be more centrist than, say, Fox News opinion shows, Angelo sidestepped the question this way: “We are patriotic. We love America. We believe in free ideas. We believe in free people.” (And which rival outlets believe in oppressed people?)

The first editorial suggests a kinder-and-gentler libertarianism: “We will crusade for reforming America’s broken schools so we can remain the world’s pre-eminent economic and technological power. We will fight for sensible immigration reform and smart environmental laws.  We will push for policies that give Americans the maximum possible freedom in their personal lives. And we don’t believe that expanding government is the solution to most problems.” 

It’s almost too much content to digest, and too many mediocre, soft-hitting quick takes on the usual “stuff on our radar” that many magazines dish out. Still, if you get tired of reading, hit the headphones icon and an overly enthusiastic actor will read it to you. “Woof, there it is!” he exclaimed when we tested the feature on a short piece about “Doggy Disco.” A video anchor named Erin smiles like a prom queen as she recites the table of contents.

Does The Daily represent a game-changer? There is, to be sure, a healthy dose of wishful thinking surrounding the iPad, as publishers who blundered by giving away their wares online hope it’s the magic wand that will mesmerize consumers into paying for content (with Apple getting a hefty 30 percent cut).

Eddy Cue, an Apple vice president, said Daily subscriptions will be sold with a single click, for 99 cents a week or $39.99 a year. “We think iPad customers are really going to embrace it,” he said.

So far, most newspapers and magazines have done little more than transfer their publications to the iPad, perhaps with extra photo galleries and video. It’s reminiscent of the early television newscasts, which were basically radio with pictures. If Murdoch doesn’t fare better with The Daily than he did in buying the fading MySpace, someone else will emerge to transform the new medium.

But the old newspaperman relishes the economics. Marveling at the notion of life without trucks and printing presses, he said: “Our ambitions are very big, but our costs are pretty low.” 

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.