What The Daily Got Right From Day One

Editor’s note: Brian Alvey is Chief Scientist and founder of Ceros. Brian is obsessed with the “brand publishing” phenomenon and talks about it endlessly on Twitter and in-person at companies around the world.

“Everything you read online is completely true, unless it’s on a subject you actually know something about.”
— I read that online

News Corp announced earlier this week that it was shutting down its iPad news app The Daily. The following day, TechCrunch writer and CrunchFund General Partner MG Siegler criticized them and other magazine apps for being too big to quickly download and for clinging to a magazine format. Specifically, he went off on their file sizes:

First, if your publication is over 100MB, quit immediately, you’ve failed.

When magazines first started appearing on the iPad, I was excited. I had been a magazine lover in my youth and could not wait to explore such content again. Unfortunately, the apps required you to download entire issues before reading. And these issues were often 500MB – 700MB.

Why are these things so large? Because most publishers are simply porting their content into digital magazine formats — essentially PDFs with some interactive elements, which mainly seem to exist so ads can have some silly moving element, take longer to load, and crash often.

Then look at Arment’s The Magazine. Each issue is just a few megabytes. Sure, there are no images and no ads, but even with a copious amount of those things, I bet each issue would still come in well under 50MB — one-tenth the size of the traditional magazines. These smaller files take seconds to download as opposed to several minutes (or longer) for the bloated turd magazines. And downloading in the background works flawlessly.

I get it. MG Siegler is a blogger-turned-investor. He’s not a developer anymore. No one expects him to fact check his post by subscribing to The Daily, sniffing network traffic over Charles Proxy and counting up file sizes. But the truth is that each of their issues was much smaller than even the 50MB he guesses The Magazine would take up if it included as much content as The Daily did.

Brian Alvey daily-board-squareMy team was there. We worked with The Daily before it had a name, sequestered in Rupert Murdoch’s third-floor boardroom for two weeks of secret planning in the summer of 2010. I sketched out The Daily’s data model on a News Corp whiteboard. With the exception of the iPad app itself, The Daily ran end-to-end — photo and wire services, workflow, layout and delivery — on an early version of our Ceros software.

When The Daily was created, the iPad 2 didn’t exist. The first iPad had more limited memory and processing power than later iPad models, so we built page-level validation into the publishing tools. If an editor uploaded a background image that was likely to crash the app, we gave a warning. Since a large portion of their audience would be loading each issue over 3G, we were incredibly proud that all of the text, page layout data and images for each issue — everything but streaming video — was less than 20MB. At 120+ pages per day, with different layouts and artwork for both landscape and portrait orientations, they were effectively serving 200-250 pages worth of colorful, interactive content in less than 20MB!

When iPad Retina displays came along with four times as many pixels, each issue remained under 40MB. When Apple launched Newsstand, your content was magically pre-loaded before you even woke up. No waiting for downloads at all.

For a large media company project, The Daily was often disruptive like a startup. From the beginning, readers could leave audio comments. Heck, if it hadn’t caused such a homeland security freakout, The Daily’s drone journalism project could have become an everyday reporting tool years from now.

Critics say The Daily should have been more social. That it should have published all day long like the Huffington Post and Engadget. That it should have done more dynamic aggregation like Flipboard and TechMeme. The fact is, The Daily had a completely dynamic sports page which readers could personalize to get news, photos, scores and tweets for all of their favorite teams. But it was just one dynamic page and not enough people ever got the chance to see it.

The Daily wasn’t a flop. In its first year, it was the third-highest-grossing app in Apple’s App Store behind two games — one of which was Angry Birds. It was reported that its budget had been approved through next June and that its demise was a product of the big News Corp split. Sadly that means a lot of good journalists, amazing designers and the developers who left our company to join The Daily are now out of work.

MG is right about most tablet publishers, though. Large print replica downloads are abusive to consumers. Publishers that convert desktop software design files into bloated half-gigabyte files for tablets deserve to fail.

But The Daily wasn’t one of them.