The Macalope Daily: Throwing the bathtub out with the bath water

The Macalope was shocked earlier this week to hear that The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s high-profile magazine for tablets, would be ending its run as of December 15th.

Shocked because he had thought for sure it had been discontinued months ago.

With this news, it was only a matter of time before someone blamed it on the iPad instead of …

“The impossibility of tablet-native journalism”

And there we go. Yes, Felix Salmon wants you to know it’s IMPOSSIBLE to do tablet-native journalism! Can’t! Be! Done!

Surely he has some good reasons to think this. Or, barring that, at least some funny ones. Reasons so wrong that they are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

… I think that The Daily has taught us all an important lesson—which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped.

Or was the real revolution supposed to be taking place inside ourselves all along?

Specifically, far from being able to offer richer content than can be found on the web, they actually find themselves crippled in unexpected ways.

Reaaaaally.

News apps, it has become clear, are unwieldy and clunky things.

Most of them are. But whose fault is that?

Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened.

Actually, no! Not at all! That’s just how they’re often implemented by short-sighted news organizations. The standard comic book apps from Marvel, DC, and others don’t force you to download the whole issue first. Buy an issue and you can open it almost immediately. The first page has to load, but while you’re reading the rest of the issue can be downloaded in the background.

There’s no reason why magazine apps couldn’t work the same way. They just don’t because it was probably easier to implement them that way. That’s not the fault of tablets or the iPad in particular, that’s the fault of news organizations and developers. Benjamin Jackson has some other examples, but Salmon assumes that the way many (but not all) newspaper and magazine apps were coded is how all of them must be coded.

On top of that, the iPad’s native architecture is severely constrained in many ways. Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait—you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad apps, which at heart are little more than heavy PDF files, weighed down with multimedia bells and whistles.

Uh, no. As Jackson notes, some news apps do have search and the PDF-heavy architecture used by many is a design choice of the developers, not something required by the platform.

Again, take any native iPad publication at all. Read to the end of a story, and then see how many headlines you can click on: which stories are you being given the choice to read next? The answer is probably none, and again the reason for that is built deep into the architecture of the iPad, and of other tablets too.

Is Salmon conducting a piece of performance art here, trying to see how many times a person can be demonstrably wrong in one article? If you read to the end of an article in the New York Times app and tap the bottom you’ll see the number is 13 more than none. Which, admittedly, is close to none, in the sense that numbers extend to infinity.

I’m reminded, here, a bit of Apple’s iOS Maps debacle.

Of course you are.

Similarly, when the iPad launched, it allowed people to do things they could never do with a print publication: watch videos, say.

Which is part of the problem. Slapping a 30-second video of someone simply saying what’s already in the article is not an improvement. The real benefits come from improving the reading experience by rethinking navigation and taking advantage of the touch interface. Too few publications have done that.

But at the same time the experience was still inferior to what you could get on the web, which iterates and improves incrementally every day.

There is no reason native tablet apps couldn’t do exactly the same thing in a more convenient form factor for reading with an interface that takes advantage of touch gestures. It’s up to the publications to rethink the delivery, something few of them have been either prepared or willing to do.

No iPad publication is remotely as innovative or as fun to read as, say, BuzzFeed, because BuzzFeed has coders who can do very clever things with their chosen platform, and iPad publications don’t.

Yes, don’t. Not can’t, don’t.

The Daily was Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to get a head start in the new medium, but in this case the medium simply isn’t good enough to get traction: the only iPad-native content which has worked really well has been games.

Games have worked out the best, but ask small publishers like Marco Arment if he’s having any success with The Magazine. Short answer: “Yes.” Long answer: “YESSSSSSS!” while throwing money in the air. (Disclosure: The Macalope has been invited to contribute to The Magazine, so he hopes to soon be butt-deep in tablet-publishing lucre. Wait, that came out weird …)

As far as news and journalism are concerned, the verdict is in: tablets aren’t a new medium which will support a whole new class of publications—there’s almost nothing you can do well on a tablet that you can’t just put on a website and ask people to read in a browser.

And who doesn’t want to be sitting upright at a desk when reading? Did Johannes Gutenberg invent movable type so you slackers could lie on the couch with an iPad? Certainly not!

Salmon at least seems to have recognized at least a little how weapons-grade wrong this piece was:

I respect the people who hate my piece on tablet-native journalism much more than the people who like it. Hm.

When you could publish a tablet magazine on the number of things wrong with your article on tablet magazines, you might want to rethink your logic.

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