The Great Murdoch iPad Debate

The Daily is preparing for its big debut. What is it and why do we care?

The Daily is the most exciting news media start-up of the millennium!

The Daily is doomed. A horrible venture from a horrible man.

On the sleek iPad, it is indescribably magical to touch the news.

Apple is a fascist censor with onerous terms.

News Corp. is paying journalists, and paying them well!

You can’t cover the nation with 100 people.

It came to Rupert Murdoch in a dream.

It is a nightmare.

What’s behind the schizophrenic anticipation for News Corp.’s iPad-only newspaper, the Daily? Why is half of New York rooting for its demise, and the other half greeting its arrival like the second coming?

Much of the negativity is tribal. The project is digital—so print-minded people are bothered. But it’s an app, walled off from the open Internet—so Web people are bothered, too. And it’s a Rupert Murdoch idea—so pretty much everyone is bothered just on principle.

On the other side of the animosity, though, is the fact that this is a news product built specifically for an Apple device. The Steve Jobs association brings with it an almost unbounded counterforce of hype and hope, the arrival of—or return to—a model in which consumers pay for news.

Oh, and there’s also the slightly-less-mystical factor that the thing is top secret and drenched in money, and people can’t wait to get their hands on it.

About the only people who have seen the Daily are staffers, who in recent days have been allowed to play around with a demo of the app. While they have a vested interest in liking and promoting their own project, they fawn over its bells and whistles convincingly. Staffers described to The Observer a snappy, striking interface that’s just … different than any newspaper or website or TV show or combination thereof. “It’s pretty mind-blowing what you can do,” one source said. “SO SICK,” wrote another. “An instant conversion experience.”

Early magazine apps on the iPad were laid out filmstrip-style. When Wired arrived, it popularized the practice of swiping horizontally to move between stories, and swiping vertically to read deeper into any one piece. The Daily expands on the latter idea. It will have newspapery sections—news, culture (including health and lifestyle), opinion and sports. Weather looks bananas. Remember scrambling for the comics pages as a kid? The Daily will have addictive little games.

Slideshows, looked down upon as cheap page-view bait on the Web, may turn out to be a killer function on Apple’s device. “The photography is otherworldly,” said an insider.

And 3-D—the staff raves about the 3-D. “It’s like describing a smell or something,” a Daily source told The Observer. “It is not quite possible to wrap your mind around the concept until you experience it. It’s a bit as though you were standing in a space with the ability to slowly spin around and see everything in hi-def.”

Movie reviews can contain video movie trailers and, since the iPad knows where on the planet it is located, find nearby theaters; album reviews can include audio clips as well as a link to purchase the album directly from iTunes. These are the technical, oh-my-God-this-can-do-that details that get Daily-boosters juiced up and talking about paradigms.

But the Daily’s DNA is in newspapers, and that’s how the staff thinks of itself, so it will always be a text-first outlet.

The Daily won’t have a home page on the Web per se, but each story will still go online. Writers can Tweet out those perma-links and share them on Facebook. The company won’t promote these pages, or even try to advertise against the content: To do so would draw attention away from the app, and the brand’s message is that the app is a thing that you simply must load every morning at the breakfast table.

Most of the content will be published overnight. But the app can receive continuous updates throughout the day, especially when there’s breaking news. They’re still figuring a lot of this out. The app doesn’t quite exist yet; the closely guarded demo is meant more to show what the new operation is capable of. “There’s some sort of insane technological revelation every day,” said a Daily source, “some new capability that emerges from the developers and makes everyone googly-eyed.”

Maer Roshan has shepherded his share of media launches—and failures—including Tina Brown’s Talk and his own Radar (three times). But he’s a believer in the iPad, and in the Daily, in that order. “Everyone who I know who has come into contact with the iPad has been immediately converted,” he told The Observer. The test for the Daily, he said, is whether it can create an entirely new experience for an entirely new medium while retaining just the right amount of old-fashioned journalism.

“Fact-checking, copy editing, calling eight sources—that takes time. That’s not really the way the Web approaches things, for the most part,” he said. A format like the iPad demands quality. For Murdoch, who has openly feuded with Google over its automated aggregation and has hidden his British papers behind paywalls, it represents the end of a long struggle, a decade of websites gutting print outlets’ revenue streams.

The tablet medium “is not as democratic as the Web was, where if you had a great idea, you could put it up and be in this equal position,” Roshan said. “On the iPad, the barriers to entry are higher, so fewer people can afford to get in—and those people tend to have money already. And be older.”

Ah, yes. Older. Joining Murdoch on the brink of the new tablet-publishing era is fellow billionaire Richard Branson, now 60, who recently unveiled an iPad-only magazine at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. But Project, as it is called, is an entirely different beast from the Daily, publishing highly polished stuff once a month. The Daily wants to be your first read every morning. At 99 cents a week, it will cost less than orange juice.

“The old guys with money are hiring the young people with talent, which is tough on the young people with talent because they can’t simply say that the old guys with money are all morons who don’t understand anything,” Paul Ford, formerly the Web editor of Harper’s and more recently an iPad consultant to Condé Nast, told The Observer in an e-mail.

“I think the era of people who ‘get it’ and ‘don’t get it’ is over. Now that platforms like the iPad are here to stay, with all the requisite app stores, ‘getting it’ is less important than ‘getting paid.’”

Daily staffers are getting paid, well. The staff is still under construction. Thirty or so hires are publicly known, out of an expected total of 100, with more names trickling out all the time. (Add Aussie Shannon O’Meara and Justin Rocket Silverman to the list.) Offering $75,000 for some starting writers, at a time when the hiring pool is deeply stocked, the Daily has had no trouble attracting young talent. Older ones, too: Sasha Frere-Jones, the culture editor, adds New Yorker cred; Steve Alperin, the managing editor for video, is an accomplished newsman from ABC. Freelancers will fill out the ranks, lured in with magazine-caliber rates.

If the top editors aren’t terribly Webby (chief Jesse Angelo comes from the New York Post), the staff is impressively so, studded with reporting chops and drawn from contributors to the Daily Beast, Gawker and the online brethren of Time, The New Yorker, Politico and AOL News. (Peter Ha, of Time’s Techland site, probably wishes he could un-post a glum May 2010 piece dumping on the iPad as a reading device.)

Murdoch, 79, is a constant presence in the Daily newsroom, surveying the big ship’s construction. No one—and that certainly includes him—knows how seaworthy it is going to be. The blessing, and the curse, of an app is that you can constantly change what it is with some new lines of code. Users can get the update with the stab of a finger—and un-install just as easily.

“[What’s] tough is that when you do these things, you’re suddenly in the service industry. The software’s never done; it requires updates, release, personal interaction with users, FAQs, and blog posts to tell people about the app features,” Ford wrote. “This is a different kind of grind that requires a different attitude.”

A beta launch is in the works for Christmastime; the public debut will come in the first quarter of 2011. In the meantime, writers are churning out dry-run stories so that the app is chock-full on Day One.

Will Roshan be waiting, ready to pay for the news again?

“I hope I get a free subscription,” he said. “No, yeah, I definitely will. I’m a believer in the iPad.”

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