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HuffPo, The Daily and the flawed iPad content model

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A little over a month ago, The Huffington Post (s aol) launched an ambitious project with much fanfare: a weekly magazine app for the iPad called Huffington, which users could download for 99 cents an issue or $19.99 for a year’s worth. The demand for this new format seems to have been underwhelming, however, since the new-media giant says it is dropping the fee and will make the app free of charge to download. Meanwhile, another media giant — News Corp. (s nws) — has laid off dozens of staff at its iPad newspaper The Daily, and there continue to be rumors that the entire operation could be in jeopardy. Are these two isolated cases, or a sign that cracks are starting to show in the content model that publishers have bought into with the iPad?

According to a report at Capital New York, the executive editor of Huffington magazine — former New York Times editor Tim O’Brien — told the publication’s staff at an all-hands meeting this week that the company had decided its content should be free of charge. As writer Joe Pompeo notes, this was the original concept for the magazine to begin with, in part because it was originally seen as a collection of existing content from the Huffington Post website, presented in a different format. As it took shape, however, the site decided to create custom content and that made it seem worthwhile to charge a subscription fee. As O’Brien put it at the time:

“We feel it’s a premium product and it deserves to carry a price with it in order to access all the value we’re giving people.”

Although a Huffington Post spokesman told Capital New York that the company was “thrilled” with the reception the app has gotten (O’Brien apparently told the staff meeting that it has had been downloaded 115,000 times) it couldn’t have been all that thrilling, or the AOL unit would presumably have continued charging for it. The spokesman said asking users for money “was inconsistent with the Huffington Post itself, which has never charged for content,” and that could be part of the problem — i.e, a mismatch between what readers have come to think of as the HuffPo’s core brand value (namely, free content) and the new magazine app.

I think there is more to it than just that, however. As I’ve tried to argue before in posts about the HuffPo launch and the all-in-one magazine newsstand offered by Next Issue Media, I think dedicated magazine or even newspaper apps in many cases don’t jibe with the way that increasing numbers of people consume content.

Dedicated apps don’t fit the way content works any more

Whether media companies like it or not (and they mostly don’t), much of the news and other content we consume now comes via links shared through Twitter and Facebook (s fb) and other networks, or through old-fashioned aggregators — such as Yahoo News (s yhoo) or Google News (s goog) — and newer ones like Flipboard and Zite and Prismatic that are tailored to mobile devices and a socially-driven news experience. Compared to that kind of model, a dedicated app from a magazine or a newspaper looks much less interesting, since by design it contains content from only a single outlet, and it usually doesn’t contain helpful things like links.

The Daily suffers from this problem and plenty of others, in my view. Not only is it content from a single entity, but it doesn’t even offer a website where readers can find or easily share that content — and while that may have looked to some observers like an ambitious bet on a mobile-only model when the paper launched, for many readers I expect it is merely a hassle. Publishing veteran Jean-Louis Gassee Frédéric Filloux put it well in a post at The Monday Note about The Daily’s flaws, saying:

“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.”

Now The Daily has laid off almost a third of its staff, as my paidContent colleague Laura Owen reported earlier this week, and there continue to be reports that the lifespan of the digital-only newspaper could be short — especially since News Corp. is going through a somewhat tumultuous restructuring that will see the media assets severed from the entertainment assets. The fact that The Daily has only managed to sell 100,000 or so subscriptions in the 18 months since it launched (compared with the 500,000 that News Corp. said it would need to break even on the publication) certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.

The dream that many publishers seemed to have was that the iPad would create a market for their individual apps, and that legions of readers would happily download and pay for them, creating a brand new stream of significant revenue. With a few exceptions, however — such as The New York Times and other publications that have strong brands or are targeted at a very specific market — that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some publishers, like Jason Pontin of MIT’s Technology Review, are waking up from that dream, but whether anyone else takes the hint remains to be seen.

28 Responses to “HuffPo, The Daily and the flawed iPad content model”

  1. Daniel Dennis

    Biggest gripes I have about iPad magazines are that they are either poorly designed (No links, no sharing, carbon copy PDFs of the print edition…having to pinch in and out of every page is NOT an elegant design) or they just fail to provide content that is unique enough for a dedicated app.

    I actually do read and pay for several, but they’re all very niche. For me general news always comes through an aggregating app, Flipboard, or socially through Twitter.

  2. This enforces my initial impression of Newstand content and magazine apps. I signed up for some of the free / trial publications when I first got an iPad, and I found the whole thing underwhelming. Basically it artificially recreates many of the limitations of print media (linear consumption, bad navigation, static rendering) which I find frustrating after so many years of consuming data feeds in a flexible manner.

  3. As a nearly 40-year full-time independent publisher, all in northeastern Minnesota, you absolutely nailed it Mathew on the flawed iPad content model piece. As hard as traditional newspaper companies try to lead the way to online publishing, they’re cemented in their approach as print publishers. The newspaper is the boat anchor for them. The truth be told, if newspaper publishers could stop publishing the printed pieces as move to full-time online publishing, they’d relieve themselves of major printing and distribution costs and the strong readership they’ve nurtured throughout the years would eagerly pay a monthly subscription fee to read the content online. But given a choice, the mature readers will pick the newspaper, and the younger readers will continue to collect their news and information online.

    Howie Hanson, Editor & Publisher
    [email protected]

  4. I wonder if in fact it creates further opportunities and momentum for niche publishers to increase in popularity, rather than the large format publishers who have larger overheads and need the larger uptake. Once upon a time we had to pick up a paper, lay it flat and turn it page by page and had no other option, Now with changing patterns and methods of consumption and the ease it is to collect digital media and never delete it, I personally would look forward to creating a personal library of rich media, news etc. If the content is quality, respected and meaningful to me I would be interested in a digital format. However i have no interest in reading my regular news on a iPhone size screen.

  5. Is there anything presented in an issue of The Daily that could not be served to a user via an HTML5 app in a browser?

    Why spend time and resources developing for a single platform with an app vs. a web-based application that would run on a number of platforms?

  6. Ranjan Roy

    I disagree that quality journalism will sell a product independent of the platform. Technology, whether the web, the tablet, or the smartphone have made all forms of content more fluid and inter-connected, and any publisher needs to be cognizant of that. The social aspect of news is becoming not just an additional benefit, but a core part of how information is consumed, how things are learned.

    I saw this false hope too often from more seasoned professionals at the last large newspaper I worked at. People who have lived and breathed print for decades wanted so badly to love and understand the iPad. It was the saving grace of all publishing. Why? Because they could relate to it. Learning about the world via comment threads, twitter streams, instapaper’ing long articles, etc. is just too foreign. Having an enclosed product that looks and acts like a newspaper or a magazine is the answer they’re looking for because it’s what they understand.

    There will always be great long-form writing and I will sit back and take my time reading it, and I will do that more on a tablet than sitting at my desktop. But, that simply gets done on Instapaper, and it does because it allows me to get content from everywhere and everyone that I want to read. Unless one publisher can claim they can create a closed package of content where every single article is the best thing I will read on the web, I’d rather continue on as I have been and take the best of what’s out there and consume it when and where I want to.

    • Daniel Dennis

      Well said. Most publishers I speak to are completely locked into the forms they get. All the iPad/Newsstand content I do pay for is long form and very niche. Content that fits well with relaxed evening/Saturday afternoon reading.

      I also agree with Nick Goggans comment that the Conde Nast titles are, generally, more interesting immersive experiences. Much of their content is more involved than just text and pic so it can’t simply be grabbed by Flipboard type apps or if it is you really do miss something.

      They seem to be taking serious consideration of the fact that an iPad can do things print can’t and are trying to find ways to tell stories in ways that use some of that potential.

      I’m curious, Has any one come across publications, besides Conde Nast, that are doing Newsstand content in creative immersive ways that exploit the iPads unique potential?

  7. Scott Porch

    I wanted to like The Daily. I subscribed to it for the first few months and then I tried again several months later.

    The Daily never went after any brand-name writers who would have enticed me to consider it an exclusive read, and the app did not update consistently enough overnight that I could pick it up first thing in the morning and start reading it without a long, slow load time.

  8. Nick Goggans

    there is a theme in this article (and the earlier article quoting Mr. Pontin of Technology Review), that the iPad (tablet) app experience is largely a closed experience. however, this does seem to be exactly what one wants when reading immersive “longer term” content such as the Conde titles, or the Economist.

    On the other hand, Flipboard, for example, is a wonderful application of an app taking advantage of the “social/linkiness” of the web – and also an ability to quickly move through a variety of articles, etc. Interestingly as the New York Times has turned it’s content over (or some of it) – it’s a better application for news pieces – but more importantly is Flipboard’s potential in serving great looking ads with minimal interruption (which are not mobile banners – which make little sense).

    But really what I think is getting confused here is the revenue model. Just as in print, it’s not the subscription price that’s going to make or break it. Can you sell the ads? How are you demonstrating value to advertisers. Conde does this well. Today this story on Ralph Lauren’s sponsorship in the NYTimes app is interesting

    Basically the app experience does drive amazing engagement (for a smaller, more concentrated audience) – however this is a ripe opportunity to sell high margin big corp sponsorships which I think can help to fund a lot of the high expense solid content (always has)…

    On the more immediate (flipboard world) – the ad model needs to be increasingly equally driven my user and socially driven user information, rather than the cookie based economics that drove the web based models (and empowered ad networks at the expense of publishers).

    people will pay for immersive experiences – they will spend a lot of time there – and sponsors can benefit
    on the flip (no pun) – if the quick ads can be more relevant with better data (which is out there, and not retargeting stuff) – there is a way to reduce the interruptive piece of ads that would be full screen “flip ups”.

  9. Matthew,

    Time is our most precious commodity. No one wants to have to go in and out of apps and deal with the clutter on the IPAD. The one who comes up with a true aggregate model that lets all of the rags play will win the war. Apple has a start, but it’s clumsy. Zinio seems to get it but just like Apple’s app store, only a few rags get top shelf positioning. Searching for stuff can be laborious and time consuming. Hopefully someone will come up with the model that aggregates it all and rags will have to pay dearly to get their faces on page one. Then they will live and die by content and not by marketing.

  10. Finn John

    It’s also worth noting that for many people, The Huffington Post and News Corp. are two of the least useful information sources. They serve up mostly commodity news, with a generous sprinkling of meaningless shock stories about child murders, puppy mutilations, etc., and poorly fact-checked diatribes that reinforce their respective worldviews. I use Pulse, and when scanning my “Top 20 News and Analysis” feed I simply don’t read stuff from either of those providers. On those rare occasions when their content is germane, it’s too much trouble to bother fact-checking it when I can simply wait for somebody more reputable to pick it up.

  11. The death of iPad publishing is greatly exaggerated. I work on the iPad edition of Men’s Health, and note that the two failures you cite are both general interest publications. Didn’t those die unattended in a nursing home three decades ago, along with LIFE magazine? It’s no surprise they have trouble getting people to pay. Pay for what, exactly? We’ve had good success building our iPad readership on a paid subscription model, I think because readers value MH content, we enhance the experience smartly, and the iPad is a great way to present service journalism. So we make readers’ iPads more useful and enjoyable, and they’re willing to pay for that. The Daily and Huffpo, not so much. And now with our iPhone edition, we’ll be traveling around in their pockets. Better access to wallets, there. So, OK, Huffpo and the Daily didn’t figure it out, but the rest of us can stand on the platform, and thrive.

  12. monirom

    John C Abell hit the nail on the head when he mentioned journalism. “Quality of Content” is the number one criticism provided by subscribers of the Daiky app. It’s unfortunate that News Corp failed to respond by altering the quality/length of their content — and instead stuck to articles that primarily provided the literary equivalent of sound bites.

    And while the author is right that people tend to consume content fed primarily from shared links and aggregators (think Editions, Flipboard and Pulse) – there is no substitute for good long-form writing which is why some magazine titles still flourish on the iPad platform. Which is why I still augment my online snacking with more substantial content on my iPad through subscriptions to Wired, Vanity Fair, Esquire and yes — Huffington. (the magazine)

  13. Aggregation, via traditional RSS, and traditional readers, was for long something looking too much technical for most users. Let’s says that agregators were boring. Think also as adding feeds in IE or Outlook. FlipBoard changed the game. We have the best under one single roof, and social networking in bonus! Usability… Is the keyword

  14. The biggest German news magazine, Der Spiegel, manages to sell it’s iPad version pretty well – it’s even a bit more expensive than the print version. Spiegel online also provides excellent content for free – the in-depth articles with a slight delay after the magazine.