Radiohead and research versus media companies and the iPad

Or how a rock band schooled Rupert Murdoch and Richard Branson.

On February 14th Radiohead announced the release of their new album The King of Limbs. You can pre-order it here if you're so inclined.

I was reading a brief article today in which the band's manager was quoted as saying - “Our allegiances are to the band. We manage Radiohead, we don’t manage retail or labels, we just manage the band and are just trying to do the best possible thing to allow another brilliant record to be embraced by the fanbase.” I like that sentiment for many reasons.

Something else I read recently that I like for many reasons is this - "Society is engaged in the present with solving problems of the past." That's a quote by the social scientist Jonathan Haidt taken from a NY Times article in February. In a TEDx talk that I gave last week at the University of Oregon's White Stag building in Portland, I paraphrased Haidt's quote - "Rupert Murdoch is engaged in the present in solving the financial problems of print media companies."

Bear with me - I'm weaving together two parallel tracks here.

Track one is how Radiohead has dispensed with the music industry's problems of the past and moved on, as long ago as 2007, when they released their album In Rainbows without using staid old music industry methods. After researching and learning from that successful experiment, they have now announced the release of their new album, applying the findings and user data from the previous release. The beneficiaries of that research are the band's fans. Radiohead learned how best to deliver their new music by creating a balance; of content, available in different formats, alongside a sliding scale of economic value of the good. A balance that satisfies the band's fiscal needs with their fan's desire for the new album, coupled with the knowledge of how they want to receive it based on research.

Track two is how Rupert Murdoch and his team at News Corporation, are engaged in the present with solving the cashflow problems of media publishing companies. At the initial launch of this wonderful new device, Steve Jobs, a man who should know better, trumpeted the iPad as the savior of newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, media companies took him at his word and proceeded to deliver a head-spinning array of iPad apps that failed miserably at not only delivering content as we would like to receive it, but also without designing specifically for the iPad platform. The creators of these apps appear to midunderstand, or simply haven't yet discovered, how people actually use the iPad or how they would like to access news on it - instead they are building apps that generally try to recreate a "newspaper experience" in digital. 

Rupert Murdoch's The Daily, is just the latest in a long line of app failures on the iPad - see Vanity Fair, Richard Branson's Project Magazine, The Atlantic; even the New York Times app isn't as user-friendly as their website is in Safari on the iPad. I say failure if the criteria is "does this app solve the problem of how I would like to receive the news or media articles on a tablet?" Or as Joshua Benton asks - "Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?"

Well Jesse Angelo who runs The Daily, answered the first question during a press conference. He said, everyone! The answer to the second question is straightforward - The Daily is about preserving cashflow at News Corp. They either didn't do any user research to determine how we would use an app like The Daily - or they simply don't care. In other words, it's good enough. Or as Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter said to Virginia Heffernan of the NY Times, after she "..asked about the app glitches through a spokeswoman — and (Graydon) Carter himself set me straight by e-mail: “The actual reading experience is superb on our app, which is what matters to us most.

That's what matters to them most. Which is why I just dropped $48.00 on the new Radiohead deluxe album package and I wouldn't spend a penny on a Vanity Fair iPad app, or The Daily for that matter. And the wonderful irony is that the band describes the deluxe packaging as a "newspaper album." Such wags.

We live in interesting times. When The Guardian has an article with a headline that asks "Will Radiohead's The King of Limbs save the music industry?" You have to laugh. Why would they want to do that? And so it is with the iPad apps and the media publishing industry "Will Rupert Murdoch's The Daily save the newspaper and magazine industry?" Well, that's no laughing matter.

Research links:

iPad Mags Need a New Blueprint

My iPad Magazine Stand - Khoi Vinh

Nieman Journalism Lab

Closed Publishing Apps? I Don't Get It

The Daily a Tablet Newspaper For Everybody (There they go again...)

This Is Violence - The Daily

Design Trumps Content in Launch of First Tablet Newspaper 

Murdoch's The Daily and the AoL Way