Closing The Daily was a mistake. It should have been saved.
The move to shutter follows the same battiness with which News Corp has been approaching digital ventures since its first foray into the web with iGuide in 1995: ahead-of-the-curve with a grand (and correct) vision, met with flawed execution, too much money spent on too many salaries, and a strange unwillingness to change the businesses for the better and stick with it. See iGuide, see MySpace, and now The Daily.
In the case of The Daily, the path forward was clear and executable. This is why my company, along with private equity, approached Chase Carey about buying The Daily after news of a possible post-presidential election shut down started to appear. Our plan to take The Daily to profitability and into the future was simple: fix the product, go multiplatform, push distribution and cut costs.
The fact is, the vision for The Daily was right. With more and more people getting their news via social media and mobile, and TV, print and web news audiences in decline, News Corp had the opportunity to build and define how the next generation got its news. And it had already achieved some of the core, and hard-to-reach building blocks for any digital media business:
- About 100,000 paying subscribers at a 98 percent renew rate (a great core user base, providing significant cash flow)
- Some smart tech (drone-based storytelling)
- A well-honed voice.
Here’s what I would have done if I had owned The Daily:
Be more than daily.
This may seem obvious, but if there is one thing The Daily did wrong, it was to take its name literally. This always seemed bonkers to me. News is happening all of the time, and consumer expectation, for years, is that the cycle is non-stop and real time. The Daily was remarkably retrograde in embracing the once-a-day publish (if that), bespoke articles and custom design. At a minimum, The Daily should have followed a blog publishing schedule, and better yet, it could have published in real-time as news hit, changed and stories caught fire.
Use more technology to be bigger.
Using a combination of people and computers to power its news operation, The Daily had the opportunity to own news discovery, and its attendant conversation across the internet. Imagine Zite married to Upworthy, powered by real-time usage and social data. The Daily should have made greater use of computers to curate third-party content, to show the size of the audience and level of sharing for its content, and to then produce the pages based on that data. Editors should have been used more to package, provide context and promote via social platforms. With that formula, The Daily could have been the future of news.
In every permutation of The Daily app, there was a strange wall between users, the content and the web-at-large. Those walls should have been torn down. The product, its content and the conversation around it should have been porous, able to flow in and out of social media platforms and be informed by them. Content should have been unlocked, and made available to subscribers on all platforms – tablet, mobile and via the web — that is the norm, and what consumers expect, especially if they are paying. Provide content to non-subscribers, and let the search engines crawl it. With open content and ubiquity across platforms, resources should have been focused – psychotically – on distribution and social marketing.
Fix the user experience.
I was always struck by how magazine-like The Daily was – the forced front page, the linear and often confusing presentation of articles, the interactive packaging that no one wants. The user interface could have been easily changed to promote better readability, consumption and access to content, and to make The Daily feel alive. News stories are as much about the telling and knowing of information as they are about the conversation and interactions people have around them. Showing the presence of, and enabling a connection between audience members could have moved The Daily from static magazine to live news platform. And while there were more robust mobile apps in the works, particular attention should have been paid to the smaller web-enabled gadgets via responsive design techniques. Phones are the audience on-ramp and main device for news consumption.
The Daily should have been run like a startup, a digital business, not a division within a division in a corporation. This is possibly News Corp’s biggest mistake, and they have made it repeatedly. It was preposterous for any digital media company to be losing – let alone spending – more than $30 million a year. Changing the user experience, pulling back on bespoke content and design, relying more on data to drive discovery, and altering the editorial mix would have helped the business and product achieve more on less. Yes, this would have meant a large reduction of staff and the loss of jobs, which would have sucked for everybody. But it would have enabled The Daily to survive, then thrive and have an opportunity to grow rationally along with revenues.
And Mr. Carey, if you happen to be reading this post, and it’s not too late, please give us a call.
Jordan Kurzweil is Co-CEO of Independent Content, an agency that helps media companies launch new digital products and businesses. Prior to starting Independent Content Jordan worked at AOL running original programming, and News Corp bringing its traditional brands to digital. He has been working at the crossroads of content and technology since 1995. His first job in digital was at News Corp’s iGuide, and in August he approached News Corp about buying The Daily. You can follow him on Twitter @jordankurzweil.