Apple seemed to have a good thing going with its News product. It was clean, easy to navigate, and pulled content responsively into Apple’s templates, allowing articles to be read on all sizes of device but with the publisher’s branding clearly displayed. Publishers used it as a way to grow awareness of their work and build audiences, either with a view to soliciting subscriptions later, or to monetising them through ads.
As soon Apple acquired ‘Netflix-for-magazines’ startup Texture, speculation started growing about whether the tech platform was about to launch its own paid-for magazine platform. With the News platform being seen widely as a success, hopes were high that if anyone could convince consumers to pay for an aggregator, Apple could.
Instead, they came up with News+, a mess of magazines, premium news articles and PDFs that understandably left consumers bewildered. It was a classic case of Silicon Valley execs who don’t understand the publishing ecosystem trying to launch a premium content product. Hit it hard enough with the tech hammer, and it’ll work.
To add to the pile of problems, Apple keeps 50% of the $9.99 a month fee straight up, splitting the remaining revenue according to the amount of time readers spend with each publisher’s content. Digiday followed up with a number of participating publishers 9 months after launch, and many had outstanding concerns with monetisation and the audience relationship.
The root of the issue is that magazines and news are not the same thing. The mindset a consumer approaches news articles with is different from how they sit back and read a magazine or newspaper edition (print or digital), and the UX of news and magazine apps usually differ accordingly.
In a review of News+, The Verge concluded that readers would save money by just subscribing to the two or three magazines or newspapers they would actually read. Even more expensive publishing subscriptions offer a better user experience than the muddled Apple product.
“If you really want to read The Wall Street Journal, then yes, Apple News Plus is the cheapest and best deal out there right now to do that,” Nick Statt wrote. “But again, the design and delivery mechanisms inherent to the service in its current state make it very difficult to read the paper as you would a physical version or with full access to the website, which you don’t get with a News Plus subscription.”
That’s not to say a ‘Netflix-for-magazines’ can’t be done. Readly is a well-known example of a platform who understands this. It houses a huge catalogue of magazines, and has also more recently added some newspapers. But these are as full editions; something you take the time to sit and read cover to cover. They aren’t trying to shoehorn in RSS feeds of breaking news and patchy ‘premium’ articles at the same time.
A blast from the past
Back to Apple News+. As uptake of the product is rumoured to be lacklustre more than a year after launch, there have been yet more inexplicable decisions made by the team.
One recent idea in particular seems to be straight from the 2010’s. In July, Digital Spy, a UK TV and movies website launched their first digital magazine exclusively on Apple News+. Custom-designed alongside the Apple News team, the magazine contained exclusive features, videos, interviews and illustrations, with plenty of interactive features.
Digital Spy cannot be faulted here. Few publishers would turn down the chance to work alongside Apple on a project that gives the opportunity to be creative in a way that many magazines haven’t been able to afford for the past 6+ years, since ‘interactive magazines’ became too expensive to continue producing for the limited iPad audience.
But it’s one of those cases where we have to wonder what Apple was thinking. Is offering an ‘enhanced experience’ magazine from a brand which has never published a magazine in its history really going to pull in News+ subscribers? And what numbers will it take to justify investment (from both parties) in regularly producing that sort of magazine?
Any subscribers Apple does gain through this method are likely to be less than impressed when the magazine stops being produced after a few editions. The previous decade is littered with the corpses of ‘interactive magazines’ that just weren’t sustainable to produce.
Just weeks after the Digital Spy magazine launch, Apple News+ has made headlines yet again. The upcoming operating system, iOS 14, will redirect News+ subscribers to the Apple News app by default if they click on a story (from search) by a publisher enrolled in the News+ programme.
This may only affect News+ subscribers and publishers for now, but it should be a big red flag to anyone with a presence in Apple News. It’s functionality they could easily turn on in order to boost engagement on the main News platform.
Not only does Apple’s traffic redirect reduce the ad revenue publishers make on their own sites, but it also renders readers invisible to most web analytics tools. Apple is effectively scooping publisher’s audiences up into their own walled garden, and it’s not inconceivable that they would extend this to the wider News product.
From a user perspective, this isn’t an unreasonable move. After all, if a reader has paid for a News+ subscription and finds a link to a participating publisher in Google search, the redirect means that they don’t have to do battle with that publisher’s paywall, or manually find the article in the News app.
But this should give pause to publishers with any intention of nurturing their subscription audiences. The New York Times won’t be the only publisher running a mile as the implications of this trickle down to publishing executives.
“This could turn out to be a passion-kill for publishers considering joining News+,” said Corinne Podger, a media development consultant based in Australia. “Moves like this send a discomfiting message at a time when publishers’ profit margins are under enormous pressure, and when regulators are looking at forcing other big tech companies to increase financial support to the media rather than walking it back.”
“The problem – as always when a platform gets involved – becomes the publisher’s,” commented Media Voices co-host Peter Houston. “They lose branding, traffic, data, and the chance to build any reader relationship. The calculation is going to be between losing all that, and whatever reach Apple can provide.”
Now comes the great bundling
The rumour mill has been churning over the past year about a possible package deal on Apple’s services: Apple Music, News+, TV+, Arcade and iCloud. Now it seems that those rumours are solidifying, with Bloomberg reporting that it is preparing to launch tiered bundled packages in October.
An entry-level package would have Apple Music and Apple TV+, with News+ as an upgrade option on a higher-tier bundle, although details have yet to be confirmed.
This in itself highlights how much of a sixth-string activity publishing is for Apple, according to Houston. “Apple News+ is an add-on to music, TV and gaming. It’s not the headline act,” he pointed out. “That’s possibly because there’s no killer content for Apple News+. In fact, it’s competing with publisher’s direct subscription efforts – that’s why the NYT left.”
“Bundles will only work when the price is right, and the right price will be a lot lower than Apple would want. As always, that’s going to squeeze publisher revenue, because Apple doesn’t share well.”
This is the crux of the issue. Bundles are great value for consumers, and will no doubt be a boost to Apple’s services revenue. But publisher’s content is being used as the value-add here, and they are going to get very little in return for it.
‘All you can read’ is not dead
Working on the assumption that publishers aren’t queueing to get into Apple News+, the outlook for the tech giant’s foray into a paid news platform doesn’t look good. Even if the bundles are enough to tempt a wave of new subscribers, not enough of the money will get back to publishers to make it worth it.
Houston is sceptical about Apple’s interest in making publisher content a sustainable offer on its platform. “The bottom line with Apple and their relationship with the publishing business is that it’s a tiny part of their revenue,” he said. “If their publishing initiatives all feel like a bit of an afterthought, that’s probably because they are.”
The concern now is that people will point to Apple News+ as an example of people’s reluctance to pay for written content in any form of aggregator, which will stifle innovation and investment elsewhere in the future. There are examples of paid aggregators working, even without the scale Apple offers.
20-year-old Canadian company PressReader describe themselves as ‘the Netflix for news’, with over 7,000 newspapers and magazines in more than 60 languages available on the platform for £27.49 a month. As of May 2019, they had over 12 million monthly active users. For each title read by a user, they pay the publisher as though someone had purchased that issue. In spite of paying publishers fairly, PressReader is profitable.
Readly, as mentioned earlier, is an example of a carefully crafted product where, for £7.99 a month, readers can sit back and choose from over 5,000 magazines. They don’t release subscriber numbers, but in 2019, digital issues were read 83 million times by paying subscribers on the app.
Just weeks ago, European streaming platform Cafeyn acquired Blendle, creating a combined offering which serves over 1.5 million active users across Europe. At the time of acquisition, Blendle had around 50,000 subscribers paying €10/month.
What these companies have in common is a focus on the edition – sitting back and reading a newspaper or magazine cover to cover. That doesn’t have to mean a PDF; each has options for text and mobile-optimised reading. It can be done, and publishers can be fairly compensated.
Apple News+ is not a failure of paid-for content. It’s a product failure, designed by people who don’t understand the complexities of the publishing industry.