Tablet Journalism: Can Rupert Murdoch’s iPad Adventure Save the News Business?

Sorry for the sensational headline. I couldn’t help myself. Talking about the future of journalism just gets me fired up, I guess.

Anyway, the answer, of course, is no. Rupert Murdoch’s new initiative, called The Daily, can’t save journalism in an Internet era when advertising rates have declined and everyone wants to get their content for free. But now that the iPad-only newspaper has launched, I find myself far more intrigued and energized by it than I had expected to be. You can bet that editors and designers at older publications are dissecting the app as we speak, and figuring out how to go The Daily one better. The upshot is that we’re going to see a lot of experimentation in the news business over the next couple of years, and that’s exciting.

The fun started on Groundhog Day, when Murdoch and the publication’s executive staff unveiled The Daily at a news conference in New York. The free app, developed by Murdoch’s News Corporation at a cost of $30 million, is a vehicle for something untried in the annals of journalism: a general-interest news operation built entirely around the Apple iPad.

If you’re wondering why someone would start a major daily newspaper that can only be read by people who’ve shelled out $499 to $829 for an iPad, then you may not have heard that Apple shipped 17 million of the things in 2010 and will likely sell tens of millions more this year. That’s a pretty large “addressable market,” as a VC might say. If just 500,000 iPad owners decide they’re willing to pay $0.99 a week for a subscription to The Daily, the operation will be profitable. (That’s based on Murdoch’s statement at the launch event that The Daily is “running at a cost of less than half a million a week,” and it assumes that The Daily will sell no advertisements at all—which it already has.)

Plus, the publication will eventually be available on all major tablets, according to Murdoch. With every major electronics manufacturer rushing to enter the market Apple has opened up, worldwide tablet shipments are expected to climb to more than 70 million in 2012. So let’s just dispense with the question about whether The Daily makes sense as a business proposition. If it doesn’t now, it soon will.

The Q&A portion of Wednesday’s launch event was interesting to watch, because you could just see the journalists in the room squirming inside. As they probed for flaws in the concept, you could tell that they were all wondering what Murdoch’s gambit might mean for their own publications—approximately none of which were created with tablets in mind.

For most publications, even digital-only ones, “online” means the Web, e-mail, and RSS. The publications big enough to be able to afford it—CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, GQ, Vanity Fair—have built their own iPad apps. But for the most part, these apps are weak reflections of their parent publications, with an incomplete selection of content, uninspiring design, and interfaces that make limited use of the iPad’s capabilities. That’s why startups like Flipboard and Alphonso Labs (makers of Pulse) have been able to find hundreds of thousands of users for iPad apps that make other organizations’ content prettier and more navigable (Flipboard just surpassed 1 million users, actually).

What Murdoch realized is that big, established publications may still be the kings of content, but they aren’t very quick to reinvent themselves when new distribution technologies emerge. Ten years down the road, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times will have shut down their printing presses and will be universally read on tablets, or e-paper, or retinal implants, or whatever we’re using by then. But The Daily is there now. It doesn’t have to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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