Apple News Plus: The Story So Far

Three weeks in, has Apple News Plus lived up to the Plus?

We’ve previously discussed Apple News speculation in the weeks leading up to Apple’s major announcement, what Folio calls “perhaps the biggest news story of the quarter.” Now, with a clearer view into what Apple News Plus means in practice, we can talk a bit more about the user experience and its actual implications for publishing—at least for now. Here, we’ll recap publisher concerns, participant hopes, and whether the subscription product has currently positioned itself to live up to these hopes.

Apple News Plus: A Quick Recap

After Apple bought Texture last year, rumors swirled that Apple would put the magazine subscription app to use in the form of its own news subscription product.

Enter Apple News Plus. Not limited to just magazines, Apple News Plus claims about 300 participating magazine and digital-native publishers, all of which make their content available on the platform in return for a cut of the revenue generated. For subscribers, it’s a sweet deal: read all the content you want for just $9.99/month. For publishers? Decidedly less sweet. Apple takes 50% of all subscription revenue, the rest divvied up based on engagement.

Why some publishers won’t participate in Apple News Plus

Publishers have made their concerns about Apple’s revenue share loud and clear, pointing out that even Apple’s App Store takes a paltry 30% cut. But that’s not the only problem Plus poses. Among the other concerns publishers have expressed:

  • Loss of audience relationships. Some publishers have balked at the idea of putting another platform between them and their audience. 29% of publishing executives polled by Digiday say “losing control of the consumer relationship” is their greatest challenge in working with Apple News.
  • Lack of customer data. Publishers won’t get so much as an email address from these readers—a piece of data that’s proven particularly important to digital publishers. In an industry increasingly reliant on audience data, a dearth of data makes Plus readers far less valuable than the average direct reader.
  • An engagement-based share of the revenue. Apple News Plus doles out payment to publishers based on how long readers spend with their content. Detractors argue that these terms will “commoditize content,” rewarding some content disproportionately while putting other content at a disadvantage.
  • Building business on a platform. Without an opportunity to build audience relationships, publishers would be left without revenue and readers were Apple News Plus ever to tweak its terms.

A platform that incentivizes views and impedes direct relationships probably sounds familiar to publishers hurt by Facebook algorithm tweaks, pivots to video, and other shifts in strategy. For these reasons, many publishers with established audiences elsewhere have declined to participate.

Why some publishers will participate in Plus

But with so many hesitations, why exactly are some publishers on board with Apple?

Perhaps Oprah said it best:

“They’re in a billion pockets, y’all. A billion pockets.“

– Oprah Winfrey, at Apple’s Special Event announcement on March 25

More optimistic observers have expressed hopes that Apple could do for news what it did for music. Since its launch in 2015, Apple Music has amassed a subscriber base of nearly 60 million users, much of its rapid success coming from its presence in a whole lot of pockets.

It’s this potential for scale that’s led some to adopt a “nothing to lose” attitude to Apple News. Even if Apple News takes half of the revenue, they argue, a share of revenue from millions of subscribers is still revenue these publications didn’t have before. A few have even speculated that—much the same way streaming did for music—platforms like Apple News Plus could cut down on piracy by incentivizing downloaders to pay for convenience, if not the content itself.

A bit more realistically, participating publishers have cited the increased reach that Apple brings. The audiences who consume content on Apple News aren’t necessarily the same audiences who go directly to particular publishers for paid content. In theory, this could partially limit the cannibalization of current subscribers while also leaving the door open to monetize new readers.

Ultimately, for publishers looking to launch or supplement paid business models, the hope is that Apple News Plus can provide a steady (if not significant) stream of revenue. But as we approach the one month mark, is Apple News destined to live up to those hopes?

Early impressions of Apple News Plus

Being in a billion pockets, Plus predictably racked up the numbers right away. Just 48 hours after its launch, Apple claimed 200,000 new subscribers, though VentureBeat points out that this number is largely propelled by existing Texture subscribers and free trials.

But for now, if digital publishers are hoping to capitalize on this reach, they better have a magazine product to match. Built from the remains of Texture, Apple News Plus displays magazine content in browsable sections that resemble a newsstand (which users aren’t too happy about in itself), while content from digital-native publishers is not nearly as easy to find.

Several articles have already recounted the comedy of errors that ensues when users try to find a digital-native publication—even when that publication is their own:

“They’re shoehorned in oddly: With a few exceptions they don’t appear inside “Apple News Plus” at all, but rather back in Apple News proper (Apple News Minus?), which is built around articles. But they’re not easy to find and they’re not labeled to distinguish themselves from the free content you’re not paying 10 bucks a month for.”

If digital publishers hope to earn a slice of that engagement revenue, they have an uphill battle for the moment. Add to that the problem of presenting content in a Plus-friendly template:

“Smaller magazine publishers that don’t have the resources to design their own templates spare are stuck considering an unfavorable set of choices: Invest precious design and development manpower to create something beautiful without knowing if there is an audience to appreciate it; use an established template, which makes your content look exactly like that of dozens of other publishers; or wait things out with a PDF, and hope that having a different user experience doesn’t cost you readers.”

PDFs are often fine on tablets, but when tablets have never cracked a double-digit market share, this means audiences will likely be left to pinch-and-zoom PDFs on their phones if publishers don’t invest in a better Apple experience for their audience. Either way, it cuts into the platform’s potential engagement and revenue opportunities.

What’s next?

Of course, issues are to be expected in the early days of a new platform. Apple Music’s own user experience was widely criticized on its way to racking up 60 million subscribers.

But a poor user experience means a poor experience for the publishers hoping to surface their content as well, raising questions about whether the most “publisher-friendly” of the platforms can actually deliver revenue, particularly for digital-native publishers. Some publishers have hinted at hoping to launch new subscription products on the back of Plus; building a revenue stream on a platform is risky enough, but investing in a paid content product on an unproven platform is especially treacherous in its current state.

So what can publishers expect to get from Plus? Often, the benefits of platforms are in their ability to springboard direct relationships elsewhere, and for now, Apple News is no different. As Business Insider points out:

“Apple won’t be sharing customer data with publishers, but participating news outlets will be able to track in-app engagement with their content and target app visitors with offers for products like newsletters, per The Wall Street Journal. Newsletters, in particular, could help participating publishers to build more direct, personal relationships with readers beyond Apple News+, and potentially convert casual readers into more engaged ones, or direct subscribers.”

While you may not be able to get the email address directly through Apple, there are still ways to nudge Plus subscribers into becoming newsletter subscribers. Including an invitation to subscribe to a newsletter alongside your quality content gives you a chance to monetize your audience directly, without having to share your returns with another platform.

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