The end of The Daily wasn’t just about Rupert Murdoch’s money

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For those who have been saying almost since it launched that The Daily, Rupert Murdoch's tablet-only daily newsmagazine, was doomed to fail: congratulations on today's announcement that the publication is folding.

"Unfortunately," Murdoch wrote in a memo to staff today, "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. Therefore we will take the very best of what we have learned at The Daily and apply it to all our properties."

There were those of us who thought it might last longer. Last summer, The New York Observer reported that the publication had been put "on watch," but I didn't think that meant anything all that significant. Murdoch has a way of digging his heels in. He has provided endless runways for other publishing businesses he loves for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with making money. (The New York Post is still around, and the folding of The Daily apparently even means beefing up staff on the Post's deathly web operation.)

When a round of layoffs was announced shortly after the "on watch" report, I thought that might even good news: slimming down in anticipation of some sort of inflection point.

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Tens of millions of dollars later, it's actually over. But I still don't think, for Murdoch, that money was the primary issue. 

The New York Post famously loses money every year, but Murdoch supports it because it gives him a voice in New York, and in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal gives him some influence, but then he can't influence the Journal as much as he does the Post without putting the brand in danger.

It's a little like the different value Murdoch gets from his British tabloids and The Times of London.

The Daily was to have been the voice of Rupert Murdoch on the shiny new Steve Jobs-inflected web. Jeff Bercovici, writing in Forbes, posited a "bromance" between the two:

Jobs' strategy of using other people's cheap content to drive sales of expensive Apple devices also dovetails nicely with Murdoch's historic willingness to engage in price wars with competitors he regards as less deep-pocketed, more susceptible to investor pressure, or simply less committed than he.

I went a little further, theorizing that Murdoch could see what, since then, Buzzfeed has demonstrated: That the web is a big place, and that while it's crowded in the celebrity-addled, gross-out precincts, there's still plenty of room in the parts devoted to earnestness (see: cop buys boots for homeless man) and semi-wonkishness (What's the Fiscal Cliff? An Easy to Follow Diagram), picture-gawking and true, personal stories. It would slice off that part of the tabloid genome that could be reconfigured in an Apple-y sort of way, with the corners rounded and buffed to a sheen; it would be an everyman's news product the way the beautiful new iPad wanted it to look.

Here was one example I cited in The Daily's early going:

Let's take, for a moment, the lead story in the gossip vertical of The Daily, headlined "Stolen away: Lindsay might get career-reviving role yanked after theft case." It's attributed to Richard Johnson, the longtime dean of the Post's Page Six staff. The lede: "Lindsay Lohan's latest alleged thievery could derail her best chance for a comeback—playing a thinly veiled version of herself for the forthcoming rom-com 'One Night With You.'"
His alma mater ran a piece about the affair of the necklace Lohan is accused of having stolen, too. It begins thusly:
"Lindsay Lohan was photographed brazenly flaunting a 'one-of-a-kind' necklace she's suspected of swiping from a California jewelry store—leading the gem shop's owner to go to cops after noticing the snaps online.
"That's virtually the same way the troubled "Mean Girls" train wreck was caught in 2008 after she was photographed wearing a New York coed's fur coat that was lifted from a nightclub."
See where the corners have been rubbed and buffed to a sheen, and the edges softened? But it's the same item.

I was, in part, keeping in mind the big profile of Jesse Angelo that had just come out in WWD, in which John Koblin established how Angelo, a veteran of the big screaming tabloid, might be a viable editorial director for something like The Daily.

In the profile, Koblin pointed to Angelo's time as a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, a Murdoch broadsheet in Sydney, Australia.

[The Telegraph was] where the Ivy League grad learned the art of writing for one of Murdoch’s papers. Take, for example, a lede from a story published 14 years ago with the headline, “Family Finds Love on the Ocean Waves”: “For the Ward family, true love always will be inextricably intertwined with the cruise ship Fairstar. Daughter Michelle and father Michael both were struck by Cupid’s arrow while walking the polished wooden decks of Australia’s most fabled fun ship.”

It seemed to me that there was plenty of DNA in News Corp.'s overall news sensibility, subtler and less well known than the strands that spawned The Sun or The New York Post or Fox News Channel, but still very much there, that could make a successful tablet magazine.

But it's only a step from there to the lethargic, repetitive, meaningless sorts of "stories" that are already losing traction in print and are dead-on-arrival on the open web. 

In fact, when it comes to big shutdowns, the demise of The Daily reminds me of nothing, in terms of the amounts of money and journalistic talent involved, and the positioning with respect to the rest of the media business, as the recent announcement of the Newsweek print shutdown. Ironic perhaps that the Newsweek brand will live on in a sort of tablet Zombieland, likely in many of the old redoubts of The Daily.

My thinking about what The Daily was evolved a bit. At the beginning I thought it would be a sort of digestible but still middle-to-high-brow daily magazine focusing on the beats that digital readers care most about: international affairs, big disasters, health, technology, and so on.

But before long it looked to me more like a tablet version of U.S.A. Today, an impression reinforced less than two weeks after the launch when Angelo sent out this telling memo to staff:

Find me an amazing human story at a trial the rest of the media is missing. Find me a school district where the battle over reform is being fought and tell the human tales. Find a town that is going to be unincorporated because it's broke. Find me a story of corruption and malfeasance in a state capitol that no one has found. Find me something new, different, exclusive and awesome. Find me the oldest dog in America, or the richest man in South Dakota.

Perhaps the most important thing was the next line: "Force the new White House press secretary to download The Daily for the first time because everyone at the gaggle is asking about a story we broke."

The real problem with The Daily was not the tablet business, which presumably could have been organized a lot more effectively to dovetail with a regular open-internet property. The problem was the tablet/app culture, when it is approached not as a way of engaging readers on another of many platforms to display certain types of content to best advantage, but as a foxhole for publishers who hope to reinvigorate the old model of reader-subsidized publishing.

It was part of the whole idea of The Daily that it was pretty much only on the tablet.

They pursued an aggressive social media policy that linked to open web versions of the stories, and the idea that that would become a point of sale for the paid tablet product isn't ridiculous. It just needed time to test out, and if time is money, then time is one thing Murdoch had plenty of.

As long as he sees and feels the power of the brand extension he's making. If The Daily had penetrated the internet culture better, if it had become something Murdoch fell in love with, if The Daily had had one big cultural moment, I think Murdoch's patience might have held out longer.

If the right people had been "forced" to download it, it might have meant something to Murdoch, whether the right number of people had done it or not.