News Corp.’s Digital Gamble

Predictions for Murdoch’s tablet-only newspaper

Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced his latest scheme to develop a new national daily newspaper, to be distributed through subscription exclusively for tablet computers. The newsroom for the new publication will operate under the auspices of the New York Post and will be headed by the “scrappy” young editor Jesse Angelo. The launch is likely before the end of the year, but no details yet on staff, budget, or exact subscription fees.

To those who say that tablets are too expensive and inaccessible to the general public to be more than a passing fad, I point to Harry McCracken’s very comprehensive survey of the tablet market on Technologizer. He found thirty-two iPad competitors in all, from the comparably expensive Microsoft OS versions available now to the merely theoretical $35 slates of the future. Point being, there are a whole lot of people banking on the tablet not going the way of the LaserDisc.

Still, it’s incredibly early in the tablet game, and as of August 2010, iPad-only, paywalled publications still strike some as a gamble, to say the least. Will this work? First, the question of audience. These excerpts from the Los Angeles Times article about the announcement stand out:

“We’ll have young people reading newspapers,” the 79-year-old Murdoch said during the company’s Aug. 4 earnings call.


Alan D. Mutter, a media and technology consultant, said it remains to be seen whether Apple’s iPad will allow old-line print publications to reach new, younger readers. Preliminary research shows that newspapers attract readers 40 and older regardless of how the news is disseminated.

“Newspaper content tends to attract — whether on print or on an iPad or however — mostly the same kind of readers,” Mutter said. “Not necessarily younger readers.”

Young people may be the ones who seem to feel most positively about newspapers, as we saw in a recent Gallup poll. As for iPads, though, NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel pointed out that middle aged tech heads are the ones who can actually afford the things, at least until some of those cheaper versions come on the market. So it will be interesting to see what kind of readers the content is meant to attract.

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon argues several significant hurdles for Murdoch’s venture to jump, one of which is that very question of audience. Given its description of “short, snappy stories that can be digested quickly,” the app’s target audience will likely be the young and attention-deficit-prone, a crowd that won’t take kindly to a paywall that prevents sharing links with friends. Furthermore, as hard as it is to get customers to pay for a brand they’re already loyal to (like The Wall Street Journal), it will be next to impossible to get them to shell out for a new publication they’ve never seen before. Salmon sums up:

My feeling, then, is that this is a project born more out of ideology — “people must pay for news online and on tablets” — than out of any particularly compelling business model. I’d never be foolish enough to bet against Rupert Murdoch on anything. But I will be very, very impressed if he manages to make this work.

Tablet-only publications can get probably around the problem of unfamiliarity with heavy marketing campaigns and free trial periods. For instance, the forthcoming digital publication Nomad Editions—a weekly, personalized “mini-magazine” for the iPad and iPhone—offers a 30-day free trial, after which readers will have to subscribe in three-month cycles to keep reading. Free trials worked for Netflix, and every new print magazine ever.

But perhaps the most obvious obstacle to paid content of the daily-rag type is an abundance of free competition. Print giveaways in cities, like AM and Metro already offer the same types of content that this app presumably would. As Ian Paul on PCWorld points out, iPad apps already exist that let you browse news sites and save stories to read offline later, allowing you to be your own aggregator of free daily news from around the world. What would make this particular app special?

On the other hand, if it’s a conduit for specialized News Corp. content that is already (or soon-to-be) behind an online paywall anyway, maybe readers will just accept it. If you’re a News Corp. fan, and you need that special blend of stock ticker quotes, Times soccer scores, Journal editorials, and Post Page Six on the go, you might not have a choice.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner