Is there a future for The Daily? According to last week’s reports by The New York Observer and The New York Times, News Corp’s “tablet newspaper” is on probation: Rupert Murdoch might pull the plug on The Daily which looses $30 million a year. But, in an open email to the publication’s staff, Jesse Angelo, its editor-in-chief, was quick to deny such rumors.

Eighteen months ago, The Daily was held up as embodying the newsmedia’s future. It was the first to be designed for the iPad, it bore the blessing of Steve Jobs himself (quite notable for someone who usually loathed the news sector), and it had the backing of the deep-pocketed News Corporation conglomerate. The project’s success would be measured over time (five years), supported by a considerable amount of funding. It had all it needed to be a success.

Fact is, The Daily never took-off. Six months after its high-wattage launch, it only claimed 80,000 paid-for subscribers. Today, Jesse Angelo mentions a mere 100,000 subs. It is both far from the 500,000 necessary to break-even and totally out of step with the growth of the iPad (and the iPhone, and the Android) installed base.

Something’s wrong with The Daily’s concept.

I subscribed. Twice, actually. At 99 cents a week ($39.99 a year), it was supposed to be a painless addition to my vast set of digital subscriptions. Strangely, it never succeeded in becoming part of my reading habits.

For The Daily, this might be its first problem: It is everything and nothing special at the same time. It’s not a tabloid, but it doesn’t carry in-depth, enterprise journalism either. It’s a sophisticated container for commodity news — i.e. the news that you can get everywhere, in real-time and for free. If I crave celebrity fodder, I go to TMZ or to the Huffington Post. If I want business news, I’ll find everything on CNN Money or Business Insider, all very efficiently and appealingly edited. No need to go through the tedious download of a 100 pages-plus issue.

The Daily’s inherent competition with the web (and mobile) was completely underestimated. Real time is now mandatory, so is the ability to generate conversations. For The Daily, a comparison of last weekend’s newscycle is cruel. Its coverage of the Mitt Romney tax return controversy triggered 179 comments on The Daily vs. 28,464 comments on the Huffington Post. (Note the HuffPo built it on a 150 words Associated Press story and a one minute video segment from CNN — that’s the digital version of the multiplication of the loaves…)

The Daily is like an old concept in a high-tech package. Some draw a parallel with USA Today, the first truly national newspapers launched in 1982. Two things made the paper a success:  its positioning as the first truly national newspaper in the United States, and its innovative format and layout; USA Today was designed for quick reads and explanatory journalism enhanced by graphics. That uniqueness was key to installing the paper America’s news landscape.

By contrast, The Daily does not enjoy the specificity of a “visually attractive convenience”. Its sophistication and its cognitive profusion lead to an excess of complexity which ends up leveling its content off. The Daily has no asperities, nothing to retain the reader’s attention in a recurring manner. A media is driven by its affinity for its audience. An intellectual, cultural or political affinity — or a combination of all three. The Daily lacks such engines. Even its Murdoch-induced anti-Obama stance fails to keep readers coming back.

Another key question for The Daily’s future pertains to its business model. On average, according to the Newspaper Association of America, 70% of the revenue of US dailies comes form advertising, and 14% of the ad revenue comes from digital. By any means, The Daily should have been loaded with ads. There is almost none. Including for the new “WKND” edition. This is worrisome: many papers draw a third or half of their revenue of their weekend editions. The per-copy price won’t help either. At 99 cents a week, it’s pocket change. After Apple’s 30% cut, this leaves less than 10 cents per issue. Even with a streamlined newsroom of 150, it can’t fly. (For more about The Daily’s economics, read Ken Doctor’s January 2011 Newsonomics article, or last week’s piece by Staci Kramer in PaidContent, both explain the issue pretty well.)

The Daily also illustrates the difficulty in building a digital media brand. Many tried, few succeeded. Slate, Salon, excellent as they are, journalistically speaking, never took off audience-wise. The Huffington Post made it through a unique combination of unscrupulous “aggrelooting” of contents from a variety of willing and unwilling sources, legions of unpaid bloggers, Arianna’s media footprint, and unparalleled audience-building techniques (see the previous Monday Note: Transfer of Value). A combination that proved very complicated to reproduce — even for someone as resourceful as Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian-born media mogul thought he could launch a new breed of news product from scratch. But in his quest for bold digital efficiency, he failed to see that a news product with no history, no breadth, no soul, no character could only face an uncertain future.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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