Tech, Too, Killed “The Daily”

Aping newsprint exacted a massive technical cost. And experiencing technical difficulties was practically The Daily’s ethos.

It’s hard to imagine now, in the dense haze of smirking and “of courses” — of course The Daily, that tablet-only thing that didn’t have a real website, failed, LOLOLOL — that the arrival of The Daily was actually kind of exciting. Or at least the build up to it was. There were rumors, for months, that Apple was working with News Corp. to produce the first-ever real iPad newspaper. They were sprinkled with the hope that it would fulfill the promise of what news media could be on the iPad — the promise that some of us in the media had baked into the Apple tablet before we even knew what it would be called.

It sounds silly, but part of the excitement around The Daily was the actual technology at hand, its technical implementation of the practice of building a daily updating publication on the iPad. This was a nontrivial feat at the time. The Daily was the first publication to even have genuine subscription billing through Apple. So there is no small irony in the fact that the internal technology situation at the The Daily was, in fact, a mess, and that perhaps the first real indicator that The Daily was a cursed enterprise is that it was a mediocre technology product from the beginning. John Gruber’s post “The Daily Wait” was a brutal takedown of the app’s experience out the gate:

Imagine a paper newspaper that was wrapped in an envelope, and the envelope was so difficult to open that it took over a minute before you could see the front page of the issue. Who would buy that newspaper? No one, that’s who. And I suspect that’s who’s going to read The Daily, unless they fix this, and soon.

The tale I heard from a developer at The Daily was essentially one of resource-starved engineers doing their best to build, ship, and maintain a product with near-impossible deadlines and goals, particularly as The Daily’s life wore on and News Corp. began to withdraw resources from the flagging tablet publication. The thing was held together with technical duct tape, including its original approach to dealing with cutting down load times before Apple finally allowed publications to be downloaded over the air in the background. A tiny hacking community formed amongst the engineers — they were often hacking together tools to make one another’s lives easier, with one engineer in particular praised for the brilliant work he did in that regard. Even the process of putting together an issue in the beginning was arduous, and minor tweaks to a piece could require it to go back through a series of designers and engineers. Former tech editor for The Daily Peter Ha recounts that the “publishing platform felt like it was held together with spit and chewing gum.” This was every day at the newspaper that was supposed to lead the future of publishing, or at least what that looked like on the iPad.

Though I suppose viewed in another way, The Daily was a leader in that regard: One of the points in this anti-profile of Wired’s new editor-in-chief, Scott Dadich — at the time the executive editor of digital magazine development at Condé Nast — was how miserable the situation was for Condé magazines on the iPad, technically speaking. It was always something of a perverse miracle that somebody had figured out a way to make The New Yorker, a magazine primarily composed of text, take up hundreds of megabytes on the iPad. Issues of Wired for a time regularly clocked in at 600 megabytes, thanks to Adobe’s tools.

No wonder experiments like Marco Arment’s The Magazine feel like a real breath of fresh air, even though it’s not a magazine in the sense that Condé was trying to recreate on the iPad something so glossy, it has more glare than the iPad’s actual screen — The Magazine is essentially just clean pages of text, like a very neatly packaged read-later app. (Which is exactly what The Awl’s Weekend Companion feels like. Not like a magazine, not like a newspaper or a website, but something…else.)

I doubt anyone would give too much thought to how these things, these iPad publications, were created — the technology used to deploy them — if they didn’t announce it so clearly in their form and function; it’s as if their ill-advised slavishness in aping the form of a paper product in a digital format enacted a real-time performance cost, like you’re reading the whole thing through a translator. Every one of these apps that truly attempt to mimic a magazine experience feels like shit. The successful ones, like The New York Times’ app, know they’re an app from the beginning and behave like it.

To be sure, The Daily failed for a multitude of reasons — the most critical being that it wasn’t built for sharing, as Alexis Madrigal so neatly laid out. If anything, it felt like it was designed to keep you away from the story, to maintain that pristine glass-and-aluminum sarcophagus. But the technical workings of the thing inside were never very pristine in the first place. The contents of a sarcophagus rarely are, when unwrapped, something you want to slip under the covers with at night.

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