Murdoch's Daily: News industry saviour or sideshow?
New York's Guggenheim Museum was the focus for all eyes in the newspaper industry yesterday afternoon.
The object attracting interest was not some ancient artefact but an Apple iPad or rather a brand new newspaper which will only be available on this and eventually other tablets.
The Daily is attracting such interest because it's been launched by a man who has repeatedly proved that he can change the terms of the media industry's game.
Rupert Murdoch now appears to believe that he has found the Holy Grail - a device that will persuade readers it is still worth paying for journalism and it comes in the shape of an iPad.
The cynics will mock his infatuation with Apple's tablet, but then his obsession with another technology, satellite television, was also derided and look how that turned out.
Mr Murdoch was supposed to be unveiling The Daily with Steve Jobs a couple of weeks ago, then Apple's CEO took sick leave. But News Corp's boss did reveal that he'd spoken to Mr Jobs last week, who'd told him his new product was "a great app". No surprise there, because Apple has made sure that it gets a share of the revenue from this and any other newspaper apps.
For once, Murdoch's rivals in the newspaper trade are also hoping that he does succeed - they are equally desperate for a life-raft in these miserable times for their trade. So what's The Daily like and will enough people stump up their 99 cents each week to make it pay?
I've had a brief play with the digital newspaper, having acquired it using a friend's American iTunes account. Once you've managed to install what is a fairly chunky download, you find a very slick product. You arrive at a carousel, where you can swing through sections which start with news, followed rapidly by gossip, opinion, arts and life, apps and games and sports.
There is hard news - The Daily has a reporter in Cairo who has delivered the first edition's lead story about Egypt, and there are some stunning photographs from the protests there, coupled with a pithy summary of how the country got to this state. It is though, The Daily, not the Hourly, or Minutely, so what you get is yesterday's news - the Egypt story already looked way out of date.
But hard news is not what this paper is about, it's more of a magazine. The overall impression is of middle-market frothy fun with plenty of multi-media twists, from the video clips that accompany movie reviews to Sudoku that allows you to compete with others online.
Although this is a product that is only available to paying customers, the paywall is somewhat more permeable than those surrounding the Times and Sunday Times in Britain. You can share articles with others on social networks, even if they're not subscribers, which should be a good way of creating more buzz about the paper.
But will The Daily win enough subscribers to cover its costs? At less than a dollar a week it is priced far more competitively than some traditional papers with iPad editions, the Times in London, for instance, costs £2($3) a week. So it shouldn't be beyond the means of those affluent Americans prepared to pay for a iPad. The question is what will keep them paying that dollar week after week.
They are presumably the kind of people who are already more likely to be newspaper readers, and while they may give the Murdoch effort a try, it is not clear that they will stick with a product which does not give them content they cannot get elsewhere. The evidence so far is that users flock to try out the first editions of magazines like Wired on the iPad, then melt away when the next one comes along.
But Rupert Murdoch seemed supremely confident about the finances of his new venture. He told the journalists at the launch that after writing off the $30m development costs, The Daily would cost less than $500,000 a week to run and that, he implied, would be a piece of cake.
Now remember, Apple takes a cut though perhaps less than the 30% it charges other app developers. So a rough calculation suggests that he needs nearly three quarters of a million subscribers to keep paying their one dollar a week, a hefty proportion of current iPad owners in the United States.
Still, the media mogul told us that there would be 50 million Americans would own a tablet of some kind by the end of 2011.So if the buzz around The Daily convinces a lot of these new tablet users to give it a try then maybe Mr Murdoch's new baby will manage to pay its way.
If that happens, the beleaguered newspaper industry will raise a cheer but it will still be just a small victory in the campaign to find a new business model for journalism. And Rupert Murdoch will still have to work out whether it's worth carrying on printing those old-fashioned papers which cost so much to deliver to a dwindling bunch of readers
PS Apologies in an earlier post it read that all eyes were on the Smithsonian when in should have said the Guggenheim Museum.