The Daily pains of a new media format [video]

I was as anxious as anyone to download Rupert Murdoch's new media baby, The Daily, when it launched yesterday. What was the 'future of newspapers' on Apple's iPad going to look like? I booted the app wanting to hate it just because of the level of hubris displayed by those hyping the product ahead of launch.

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Much to my dismay, though, I didn't hate it. In fact at first blush I kind of liked it. It was an interesting experience. I'm not convinced that any kind of daily periodical is needed in today's world; at least not one that is news-based. When something happens in the world, we head to the internet to find out what's going on immediately; the idea of waiting until the next morning for media to be delivered seems hopelessly quaint. The Daily's answer to that concern is a promise of on-going updates throughout the day. Thus far I haven't noticed any of these, but since this is day 2 I'm willing to cut them some slack. For all I know they're doing minor updates that I just don't notice, but certainly I'm not seeing mid-day updates of big stories like the situation in Cairo. Anyway we've all got two weeks to evaluate how they do with on-going updates. So I don't really want to talk about content today, but after flipping through my 2nd issue of The Daily that "interesting experience" I mentioned is starting to irritate me. So let's go over some of the issues that are cropping up. First of all, in order to force the app to update I had to quit it and restart. If there's a Refresh control I haven't yet found it. I have had the app report that it was loading a new issue a few times, but this morning over coffee I still had the prior day's content. Quitting and restarting the app triggered a refresh of all new content. There's a "Reset Content" feature but I assume that just marks stories as unread. Anyway a refresh button seems like a no-brainer (and if there's one there that I haven't found, then please make it more prominent). Second, the app is something of a resource hog. Now this complaint can be laid at Apple's feet as much as at News Corps, really; iOS should handle multi-tasking a lot better than it does. From an end-user point of view blame doesn't really matter and the fact is that if The Daily app is acting sluggish, force-quitting some or all background apps will help speed it up. It's never what you'd call snappy, though. Maybe on iPad 2... Third, this concept of having content change when going from landscape to portrait mode...ugh. At first, when I was just fooling around with the app, I thought it was pretty cool. If you haven't seen it, some articles show text and images in portrait mode but shift to a full-screen slideshow or video in landscape mode. In theory it's neat but in practice I don't want to be that aware of the device I'm holding when I'm reading something. Shifting back and forth, particularly if I have the iPad laying flat on a surface, gets old pretty fast. What makes this shifting idea even worse is that sometimes a story that changes depending on orientation isn't marked. In today's issue (I'm writing this during the evening on Feb 3rd, 2011) there's a story titled "Time-Bomb Tracker" that talks about political hot spots in the Middle East. Assuming you're reading in portrait orientation, Page 1 has some explanatory text and directions to "Swipe for Map." If you swipe you get half a map of the region, swipe again to see the remainder of the map. But if you turn the iPad to landscape orientation, you'll see a series of photos and captions describing the various hot spots indicated on the map. On the landscape content there's a 'rotate' icon saying "Turn to see story" but there's no similar icon on the portrait content. You just have to stumble upon it. (I'm hoping this is just an oversight.) Fourth, losing my place. Try this. Open a story. Hit the Home button on your iPad to go back to the Home Screen. Tap the Home button twice to open up the multi-task panel and tap on The Daily's icon. Rather than go back to the story you were reading, you'll be taken to some random page. Very frustrating. I think they consider this a feature, showing you something you haven't yet seen.

The Daily

"Front page" of Feb. 3rd edition of The Daily

Fifth, inconsistent design when it comes to interactivity. On the "Front Page" today are 3 stories: "The Big Dig" occupies most of the page (about the snow storm this week) and then there are two smaller teasers in the left rail. Tapping one of those two smaller teasers will take you to the story in question (usually...too often taps don't seem to work) as you'd expect them to. But tapping on the main story, about the snowstorm, does nothing. The only way to get to that story is to flip forward a few pages. Another example from February 2nd's issue had a story talking about the zodiac in some context. There was a circle of zodiac symbols and in the center a round, glowing icon slowly throbbed. I tapped it, of course. Everything about it screamed "I'm interactive!" but it wasn't; the throbbing was purely decorative. You really get the feeling the content was designed by print people, not web people. And lastly, if my last paragraph seemed vague, it's because I can't find a way to go back and read the February 2nd issue. As far as I can see, it's gone forever (at least from the app). If I'm a paying subscriber I ought to be able to read issues I missed. So there you have it; a whole lot of griping about The Daily. The good news is that none of this stuff is hard to fix (aside, perhaps, from the performance issue). In "researching" this post I have to admit I stopped to read a bunch of stories, and that says a lot about the value of the product. Once subscriptions kick in, News Corp is only asking $1/week, or $40 for the whole year. That's not a lot of money. If they can fix some of these issues (and in particular offer access to back issues) then, in spite of my griping, I may become a subscriber. When everything comes together and you read a story that has text, video, audio and a slideshow all discussing the same topic, The Daily really does offer something that feels new and unique. It definitely feels a lot different from reading a series of webpages. Somehow more relaxing. Of course, it's too early to make a real judgment on the on-going quality of the actual content (plus that's going to be a personal call). If you've tried The Daily, what did you think? Will you subscribe when the free period is over?

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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