The future of news had another false start: The iPad-only newspaper The Daily will cease digital publication on December 15 as part of News Corporation’s restructuring. “From its launch, The Daily was a bold experiment in digital publishing and an amazing vehicle for innovation,” said big boss Rupert Murdoch in a statement. “Unfortunately, our experience was that we could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term.” Even at its much-celebrated beginning, the odds didn’t look good.
The Daily joins a string of technology failures at News Corp., including the barely remembered PageSix.com and the $500 million MySpace bust. At the time of its 2010 launch, Chris Rovzar wrote “this isn’t just a gamble on content, but on technology — and that’s the kind of bet the aging mogul doesn’t have a reputation for winning. If he does, he could finally earn the reputation as a digital-media innovator. But how likely is that?” It was a rhetorical question, but not really.
“This is a newspaper business run by newspaper people who have never succeeded, by the way, in making a successful newspaper,” said media critic Michael Wolff, author of the Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News, at the start. “[Daily editor-in-chief] Jesse Angelo has spent his entire career at a paper that has arguably lost more money than any other enterprise in the history of the media business.” That’s the New York Post — where Angelo, a Murdoch family friend and secure member of the inner circle, will land as publisher. (He started inching his way back in that direction earlier this year.)
After The Daily’s initial hype-cycle, which included a fancy debut with Apple at the Guggenheim, the numbers it needed to succeed seemed daunting, and so followed a pattern of outsider skepticism and public pep-talks from the outside. “Find me the oldest dog in America, or the richest man in South Dakota,” Angelo wrote in a much-mocked memo to reporters. “Get in front of a story and make it ours — force the rest of the media to follow us.” It never happened that way, and The Daily’s lack of a proper website kept it largely out of the conversation online.
The project needed about 500,000 subscribers to break even, and did not get a chance to come close, hovering around 120,000 weekly readers last year, while opting not to say how many people were actually paying subscribers. The paper lost about $10 million in its first quarter (with estimates around $30 million per year) and by summer, rumors of it being “on watch” were at a steady rumble, with an eye toward after the presidential election.
Angelo fought back against “the latest misinformed, untrue rumors of our imminent demise” and urged staffers to ignore “the haters.” Then 50 of its 170 full-time employees were laid off. “We have consistently remained one of the top-ranked paid news apps since our launch, we have steadily grown our subscriber base, and we have the world’s largest media and publishing company behind us,” said publisher Greg Clayman, looking on the bright side. But with News Corp. splitting in two, and the newspapers no longer shielded by huge television and film profits, The Daily’s weaknesses were laid bare. With no momentum and no real niche in the news ecosystem, Murdoch ran out of patience and once again learned that a vehicle for information is not a vision.