On blaming The Daily’s demise on purely technical causes

Was it any good? Who knows?

Remember The Daily? Yeah, that was a long time ago. Good times. Now an artifact of history, like the Montreal Star, its official demise back in the day (Monday) and the analyses that followed (also Monday) offer a few lessons for us even today (Wednesday).

The obits were numerous indeed, and each provided smart technical reasons for the quick shuttering of Rupert Murdoch’s experiment in tablet-based newspapering.

Felix Salmon says the failure proves the impossibility of tablet-native journalism and the limits generally of news applications, as opposed to more open Web-based platforms.

Jack Shafer says The Daily didn’t lose the game; it just ran out of time, as a distracted Murdoch pulled the plug on an experiment that had yet to run it’s course.

Slate’s Will Oremus blamed the fact that it was available for most of its life only on the iPad, sharply limiting its audience.

Former staffer Trevor Butterworth blamed the paywall.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic also faulted its self-contained structure, saying it doubled down on the mobile trend, but not on the sharing trend.

Alex Madrigal of the Atlantic offered three theses, including that it tried to control distribution and was, again, not made for sharing.

And so on.

What all these analyses have in common is that none of them dealt much at all with The Daily’s content, what it actually published, and that’s because, as many gamely admitted, the authors hadn’t actually read the thing much at all. And neither did I.

Now, the old axiom says that you should write what you know, and that’s what everyone is doing here—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still to discount the content entirely won’t do. This would be the product that the whole operation was trying to make money on, whether through subscriptions or digital ads. At a certain point, the post-mortems dwelling on technical issues start to sound a bit like the old joke about the guy searching for his lost keys under a streetlight. When asked why, he says, “The light’s better.”

But to be fair to The Daily, and to be just fair, you have to do some kind of content analysis. You can’t just flip through a couple days’ worth and declare that it sucks. You never know what you may have missed. Plus, you risk someone popping up with, “but what about our seven-part series on nuclear waste in the tanning industry”? Or something.

You can ask for their best stuff, which is a good strategy, but they may not cooperate.

Still, no matter what you do, it’s a lot of work, believe me.

Now, it is fair to note, as Jack did, that no one in media circles really seems even to have heard much about what The Daily was doing. And given social networks, that’s saying something. As Shafer says, “The number of times somebody told me to go read The Daily in the last 22 months could be counted on one hand of a veteran stamping-press operator.”

This may have been because of the confined structure, for all I know. You’d think we’d have heard about their blockbusters, but still, you never know.

Peter Ha, ex of The Daily, testifies that it broke a lot of stories:

We collectively broke a lot of stories, like the existence of Amazon lockers, Office for iPad, Xbox set-top boxes and other notable stories from the news and gossip desks. You probably read about them on various Gawker sites. Great content doesn’t do much good if there’s no good way to share it. The Daily was run like a newspaper from the top down, which isn’t a terrible idea. It just needed to go back a few more decades to a time when newspapers published multiple editions in a day, for instance.

On the other hand, Josh Benton of Neiman Lab rounded up some Twitter feedback on The Daily’s demise, and some blamed what they described as undistinguished content.

Even so, can we grant that The Daily’s content as a general matter, no matter what we may suspect, is, at best, something of an unknown, the X-factor?

And if we don’t know that the stuff was actually any good, different, or interesting, how do we know that the reasons for its failure were purely technical?

After all, what newspaper that Murdoch owns is that great, anyway? News Of the World? The Sunday Tasmanian? For that matter, what’s the greatest scoop in Fox News history? There may be one, but that’s not what it’s known for. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t count because it was already pretty good before he owned it.

The point is, if you think the editorial mix, the content, has nothing to do with the success or failure of a publication, then I would say that’s a strange position for any journalist to take.

And if you think that it has something to do with success or failure, then we should acknowledge that we really don’t know whether that was a big reason why The Daily failed. I bet most of us suspect that it was.

And if it was, then we should admit it’s too soon to tell whether the format was to blame or just what the format delivered.

The syllogism that The Daily failed; the Daily was tablet journalism; therefore all tablet journalism will fail is a logical fallacy.

It doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means that a Murdoch newspaper should hardly be the last word.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.