Can it fly? Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was plotting a tablet-only newspaper. Or rather, an iPad-only paper — at first; other tablets would follow. The Daily, as it is to be called (how modest and innovative) is to be blessed by Steve Jobs Himself at a media event introducing the new venture. Initially, rumors pointed to a December 9th date; the latest gossip now says the unveiling could be delayed over “issues”. In any case, this is big news: a major media group, crossing the Rubicon to get rid of both paper and web, riding the Apple promotional machine (details and speculations in this story from The Guardian).

Well before the iPad was introduced last Spring, many of us had dreamed of a news product encapsulated inside a self-sustaining iPhone application. The advent of the iPad, with its gorgeous screen, only made the dream more vivid. Then, reality interfered. Even with the combined installed bases of the iPhone and the iPad’s, numbers didn’t add up, the dream news product wouldn’t make real money. Could it work this time under Rupert Murdoch’s rule?

Let’s return to Earth and tally the project’s pluses and minuses.

On the plus side

1 /  Let’s make quick work of the staffing issue. Media pundits contend you can’t run a serious daily with a staff of hundred as envisioned by Murdoch. Of course, you can have a roaring newsroom with 100 people! As long as such staff is focused on the paper’s core journalistic beats; in an ideal world, a newsroom should be staffed by a relatively small number of dedicated, well-paid, hard-working reporters and editors, managed by a flat hierarchy. This compact crew only needs to be supplemented by a carefully outsourced network of specialized people whose expertise, while highly valued, isn’t used often enough to justify full time employment. Exactly the opposite of our dying print dinosaurs.

2 / The tablet immersive experience. Like no other device before, the iPad has the ability to capture the reader’s attention: iPad “sessions” last much longer than browsing expeditions on the internet. According to TigerSpike, the very design company that built apps for News Corp, the average iPad session lasts 30 to 40 minutes (see story in PaidContent).

3/ The market. Rupert Murdoch is convinced that, soon, an iPad, or a competing tablet, will find its way in almost every household. And he is said to have been impressed by projections of 40 million iPads in circulation by the end of 2011. Spreadsheet magic! Millions of customers… On the revenue side, numbers can work. A 100 persons newsroom should cost no more than $12-15m a year to operate. Assuming $99/year pricing, netting $66 per user after Apple’s fee, plus $10 per user per year of premium advertising (after all, it is a qualified audience), the ARPU can land at around $80, which translate into 150,000 subscribers required to break-even. Sounds appealing.

On the minus side

1 / Closed environment, no links. That is the side effect of the “cognitive container”: an application such as the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian or the Economist, is by definition autistic to the rest of the web. No links to the outside world (except if it has an embedded browser like Dow Jones’ All Things D), and no relation to the social/sharing whirlwind. Some will appreciate the coziness of a newspaper without parasitic external stimuli, other won’t accept to be cut-off from the social Babel. It could be a matter of generations.

2 / The Apple business model sucks (for media). At first, Apple’s 30% cut of the retail price sounds great compared to the physical world where production and distribution costs devour 40% to 50%. Not so simple. First, you need at least five times more readers in the to offset the advertising revenue depletion associated with the move to the digital world.
Second, the tax issue. In many countries, in spite of intense lobbying by media  companies, digital products carry standard VAT. In France, where the VAT is set at 19.6%, internal analysis made by publishers showed that a high volume daily will net less in the AppStore than in a physical kiosk.
Third, Apple’s terms of use. They deprive publishers of two things : first, the ability to set prices outside of Apple-dictated levels (usually too high or too low) and, second, access to customer data, which make any CRM monetization impossible. The latter is, in itself a major deterrent to dealing with Apple. Of course, if Steve endorses Rupert’s project, the conditions could be quite different.

Mandatory

1 /  Exclusive and proprietary content. If Murdoch’s paper — or any tablet-only publication for that matter — is unable to produce truly original content, it is doomed. The internet is flooded by reverberating newsflows of all kinds, and free. Value will inevitably follow uniqueness.

2 / Pricing: simple and adjustable. No one knows what readers will ultimately: the iTunes model (multiple 99 cents transactions) or the cable-TV or Netflix flat-but-fat fees? To find out, the only way is to offer multiple pricing options. Problem is: it goes against simplicity and readability.

3 / Beyond Apple and perhaps beyond the app. For all of its advantages, betting only on the AppStore could be risky. The market will be overflowed by other vendors and operating systems. Hedging one’s bets will be key.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to look beyond the application concept. Instead of an autistic app, why not build adaptative web sites that will adjust automagically to the device used (tanks to the user agent technique)? As screen sizes differ from an iPad, for a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or for the  upcoming Blackberry Playbook (see this video), the tablet-dedicated site could adjust and optimize its rendering. In doing so, the service would remain part of the web, connected to its social features; it could operate on a much better business model than Apple’s, and there would be no hassle with the app store application process, upgrades, inexplicable rejections, etc.

4 / Speedy and simple. On both my iPhone and my iPad, the applications I no longer use happen to be the most complicated and the slowest. One such example is the New York Times app: it needs more time to load than it takes to flip trough several pages of the paper’s web site. On the contrary, the just released Economist applications are great. Two buttons on the main page : Download (10 seconds for the entire magazine) and Read. That’s all. And if I want to change the font size, it is intuitive: I pinch in or out, and the whole layout resizes. Interestingly enough, The Economist gives its subscribers the choice between a great website experience and the magazine look and feed of its sleek application (I’m curious to see which one will prevail, audience-wise). The beauty of this app resides in what that has been removed from it.

Meditate on this: this is at the very core of Apple’ design genius.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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