How We Move

Is The Daily the Heaven’s Gate of mobile? Not just expensive, but inexplicable. Not just a bomb, but an albatross.

In fact, you just paused for the briefest moment trying to remember what The Daily is—because you haven’t heard a word about it since its launch back in February.

It’s a product so full of bugs that it actually may be possible that there is no one who has successfully subscribed to it all—or at least who hasn’t given up on trying to download it before the morning commute.

But, even more bewildering, it’s a newspaper, or version of a newspaper, so aggressively bland that it seems to have jumped out of 1950s Wichita rather than the digital world.

In Los Angeles recently, I ran into Richard Johnson, the former New York Post Page Six editor, who made an abrupt and unlikely transition from mangy newsroom to anodyne tablet. He looked stupefied and lost—possibly the most hapless pilgrim from the old world in the new. It seemed obvious enough not to have to pretend otherwise: “What’s happened, Richard, for Chrissake? It’s dead on arrival!” I said.

“What? Yeah. Well…”

“It can’t last.”

“It’s just starting. And…could work…Could. They’ll keep it going.”

It is unfair, in a way, to single out the worst example of tablet strategy because there are many better examples and they don’t seem to be making any more impact than The Daily, either. The folks at MediaVest, the big media buying firm, recently declared that they’d no longer accept ad rates based on numbers that include tablet editions—believing that, in effect, they are worthless.

And yet, on the part of publishers, there is an Ahab-like or lemmings pursuit of tablet existence. After resisting Apple’s lopsided terms, almost all the major publishers are now agreeing to them.

It is one of those stark cultural divides. Everybody who makes his or her living in the digital world is skeptical if not utterly bemused about tablet publishing (or republishing); everybody from the print world, on the other hand, is charging off the cliff.

But, back to Rupert. The Daily is a pure I-don’t-get-it-but-I’ll-be-damned-if-that-stops-me play (and who can stop me, anyway?). It was conceived by Murdoch himself, willed into being by Murdoch, and executed by him. A man who has an absolute belief in the medium of newspapers and almost no firsthand experience or interest in digital media—save for having sometimes to awkwardly pose next to a computer to suggest he might use one, although he doesn’t—decided to address the problem of old ways and new technology with the greatest certainty and resolve. The Daily is the result—a hopeless misreading of the form.

At other publishing companies there are hipper, more adroit people. But they are not that hip and not that adroit, and all of them are fundamentally connected to the old ways, too. And their cumbersome, inert, buggy, too-long-to-load, jazzy design, para-publishing products are the result.

Meanwhile, the mobile form expands and grows, driven by a basic question that most publishers have seemingly not asked: How does information relate to movement?

Books work because they require enough concentration to blunt the world around you. They provide anonymity. Music works, increasing everyone’s privacy. Games are the ultimate narrow focus. Constructing little cubicles is the art. Private when public—that’s the goal. I am not here, really. Blank me, please. I am blanking you.

There’s a loud, jarring, jumpy, desperate, look-at-me sense of tablet publishing—it tries too hard. It’s not just that tablet design invites people to look over your shoulder and enter your space—but it makes the reader self-conscious too. So much design, so little function. So much brand, so little purpose. Vulgar.

Curiously, periodical publishers used to be the experts on information and movement—specialists in portability. “People carry newspapers so other people see who they are,” Murdoch once explained to me.

But we move differently now, quietly, discretely, contemplatively, using technology to make ourselves smaller as we go.