The Great Murdoch iPad Debate

MAER ROSHAN has shepherded his share of media launches–and failures–including Tina Brown’s Talk and his own Radar (three times). But he’s a believer in the iPad, and in the Daily, in that order. “Everyone who I know who has come into contact with the iPad has been immediately converted,” he told The Observer by cell phone from Los Angeles, where he had flown for Thanksgiving. The test for the Daily, he said, is whether it can create an entirely new experience for an entirely new medium while retaining just the right amount of old-fashioned journalism.

“Fact-checking, copyediting, calling eight sources–that takes time. That’s not really the way the Web approaches things, for the most part,” he said. A format like the iPad demands quality. For Mr. Murdoch, who has openly feuded with Google over its automated aggregation and has hidden his British papers behind paywalls, it represents the end of a long struggle, a decade of Web sites gutting print outlets’ revenue streams.

The tablet medium “is not as democratic as the Web was, where if you had a great idea, you could put it up and be in this equal position,” Mr. Roshan said. “On the iPad, the barriers to entry are higher, so fewer people can afford to get in–and those people tend to have money already. And be older.”

Ah, yes. Older. Joining Mr. Murdoch on the brink of the new tablet publishing era is fellow billionaire Richard Branson, now 60, who yesterday unveiled an iPad-only magazine at the Crosby Street Hotel. But “Project,” as it has been finally called (rejected names include “Maverick,” “Matter” and even, for some reason, “22”), is an entirely different beast from the Daily, publishing highly polished stuff once a month. The Daily wants to be your first read every morning. At 99 cents a week, it will cost less than orange juice.

SLIDESHOW: Media Critics Take Sides Over Murdoch’s Daily

“THE OLD GUYS with money are hiring the young people with talent, which is tough on the young people with talent because they can’t simply say that the old guys with money are all morons who don’t understand anything,” Paul Ford, formerly the Web editor of Harper’s and more recently an iPad consultant to Condé Nast, told The Observer in an email.

“I think the era of people who ‘get it’ and ‘don’t get it’ is over. Now that platforms like the iPad are here to stay, with all the requisite app stores, ‘getting it’ is less important than ‘getting paid.'”

Daily staffers are getting paid, well. The staff is still under construction. Thirty or so hires are publicly known, out of an expected total of 100, with more names trickling out all the time. (Add Aussie Shannon O’Meara and Justin Rocket Silverman to the list.) Offering $75,000 for some starting writers, at a time when the hiring pool is deeply stocked, the Daily has had no trouble attracting young talent. Older ones, too: Sasha Frere-Jones, the culture editor, adds New Yorker cred; Steve Alperin, the managing editor for video, is an accomplished from ABC; Richard Johnson is overseeing gossip, a lion not yet in winter. Freelancers will fill out the ranks, lured in with magazine-caliber rates.

If the top editors aren’t terribly Webby (chief Jesse Angelo comes from the Post), the staff is impressively so, studded with reporting chops and drawn from contributors to the Daily Beast, Gawker and the online brethren of Time, The New Yorker, Politico, and AOL News. (Peter Ha, of Time’s Techland site, probably wishes he could un-post a glum May 2010 piece dumping on the iPad as a reading device.)

Mr. Murdoch, 79, is a constant presence in the Daily newsroom, surveying the big ship’s construction. No one–and that certainly includes him–knows how seaworthy it is going to be. The blessing, and the curse, of an app is that you can constantly change what it is with some new lines of code. Users can get the update with the stab of a finger–and un-install just as easily.

“[What's] tough is that when you do these things, you’re suddenly in the service industry. The software’s never done; it requires updates, release, personal interaction with users, FAQs, and blog posts to tell people about the app features–and publishers are not in the service business,” Mr. Ford wrote. “This is a different kind of grind that requires a different attitude.”

A beta launch is in the works for Christmastime; the public debut will come in the first quarter of 2011. In the meantime, writers are churning out dry-run stories so that designers and coders have something to work with, and so that the app is chock-full on Day 1.

Will Mr. Roshan be waiting, ready to purchase a download and pay for the news again?

“I hope I get a free subscription,” he said. “No, yeah, I definitely will. I’m a believer in the iPad.”

nsummers@observer.com | @nicksumm