Let’s face it: No matter where your opinion falls on pay walls, nearly everyone agrees that a paywall is a barrier. And even those who firmly believe in the existence of a market for paywalled content agree there needs to be something that entices a reader to navigate past all the free news items and venture over the wall. The success of the Wall Street Journal’s pay wall is often attributed to the fact that it offers valuable financial information that investors can’t get elsewhere. This is why some DC-area newspapers can charge thousands of dollars to lobbyists for subscriptions to their daily policy coverage — it’s so wonky that it’s not touched by more general newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. Consumer Reports has one of the most successful online subscription bases — 3 million in 2007 — because its in-depth consumer studies are not easily replicated by free online news outlets.
Why then is Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily — which hopes to be the most successful paid news app to date — wasting time publishing four-sentence articles on Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday?
In trying to be all brisk and app-y, The Daily often goes short — too short. On Ronald Reagan’s centenary birthday, for instance, it offered a full-page shot of him headlined “100 FOR THE GIPPER” followed by a three-sentence (total) “article” about the “bipartisan hero” (hmmm). A full-page shot of a bowl of shark-fin soup (“A FIN MESS” — groan) topped a four-sentence (total) “article” about a proposed California ban. Elsewhere, page-hogging infographics aren’t much different from what USA Today pioneered back in 1982, while gratuitously deployed video demonstrates that sometimes pictures can be worth way less than 1,000 words.
It’s unclear whether there really is a market at this point for a subscription-based daily newspaper tablet app. But what is clear is that if such a market exists, it will reward the publication that offers something not offered elsewhere. In other words: Depth. The Daily, in its struggle to find itself, needs to stop thinking like Time Magazine circa 1966 and thinking more like The New Yorker, which is known for its 10,000-word meaty profiles that are incredibly difficult to replicate.