Emily Bell 

Murdoch’s the Daily and the AOL way: two approaches to the same issue

Emily Bell: News Corp's glossy iPad launch represents the world of 'spectacle' media, while the web giant focuses on the ugly data
  
  

There were two faces of digital media abroad in New York this week. One was its most impressively flat shiny square face, in the shape of the much anticipated launch of Rupert Murdoch's iPad app, the Daily. It represented a world of 'spectacle' media. A press conference at the Guggenheim museum, the World's Greatest Living Mogul live on stage, a budget of $30m and 100 staff. And all over New York's media community scrabbling to download it to their (usually flat) iPads.

All apart maybe from the editor of a leading New York-based newspaper who I asked "Have you seen it yet?" several hours after launch. "No, I've been too busy with Egypt," he replied. Well, that told me.

The other was a rather less appealing face, in the shape of a leaked slide deck, cleverly captured by businessinsider.com titled The AOL Way: Content, Product, Media Engineering and Revenue Management. This document took away the Wizard of Oz curtain flapping in front of digital business models and replaced it with some frankly rather frightening numbers.

'The AOL Way' is to apparently increase the number of stories produced by journalists from 33,000 to 55,000 within three months, it is to increase the number of pages containing video from 4% to 70%, it is to increase the price of each piece of content from $99 to $84 while increasing the number of times each piece of content is viewed by seven-fold. In other words, this is the measurable 'data face' of digital media which is stern and ugly. Not surprisingly most of us would much rather be in the Guggenheim with Rupert.

The 'spectacle' approach to media and the 'data' approach to media is also classically illustrated by a third event: the flotation of Demand Media, a company which has build its size and marketability rather swiftly on the back of automated journalism production. This 'content farm' model, where an algorithm determines what stories journalists should write, based on analysing what people are asking search engines, attracted a market valuation of $1.5bn, which every person and their numerate dog quickly calculated meant it was "worth more than the New York Times". Technology journalist Danny Sullivan writing at searchengineland.com did a rather brilliant analysis of what the New York Times would look like if produced by Demand Media.

What Sullivan illustrated is of course despite the perceived gulf between the spectacle and the data, is that both sides have something to learn from the other. Much as there isn't a person currently employed in newspapers who doesn't want the Daily to be a roaring success, the reality is that the numbers have to work. Jeff Jarvis's excellent buzzmachine blog post (and comments) on the metrics of the Daily suggests that profitability is a pretty distant goal for Murdoch's iPad product.

Equally, one suspects that AOL's Way, and indeed Demand Media's valuation, depend on a model which is only ever going to appeal to advertisers, and readers on a highly utilitarian basis, which will never create a particularly robust media brand. The issue for everybody else is finding a way to marry this new rather soulless path to profitability to the brand strength of something which feels as much at home on a spreadsheet as it does in the Guggenheim. What is completely clear though, is that the AOL Way and the Daily dish are not totally different things. They are the same problem, differently expressed.