Apple News+ Four Months Out: Proceed With Caution

Jul 15, 2019

Article ImageThe last two years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the value of quality journalism. Brands like The New York Times and The Washington Post are doing their best work in years, while the golden age of TV has shown the value of high quality publisher content. Now Apple, dealing with slowing iPhone sales, has joined the party. 

Details were scant when Apple News+, a periodical subscription bundling service, was first announced, but new features have already begun rolling out, including automatic downloads of followed titles. 

The launch was mostly celebrated by tech news outlets, but publishers — and consumers — really should be wary. The service has the potential to drain revenue away from publishers, and create a space where publisher brands are flattened by easy-to-game algorithms. Not to mention there are implications on the consumer as well. It is important to realize that this service is challenging the concept that high-quality content should be available to a mass audience. A more immediate question for publishers is whether joining Apple News+ be worth it even in the short-term? 

More Harm Than Good for Publishers

Apple claims its new subscription service will be good for publishers. The company is holding out the prospect of a big payday for magazines and newspapers, but publishers should take some time to read the fine print. Apple News+ is the perfect setup for the cannibalization of existing business. The logic is that publishers have hit their peak subscriber base, and so any Apple revenue will be additive. But that means that the next generation of readers will have zero incentive to convert from casual readers to dedicated fans, who interact with content on a regular basis on publisher-owned properties. Instead of taking a short-term view of the revenue problem and going for immediate gains, publishers would be wise to take a step back to consider how a service like this could diminish their future competitive advantage.

Publishers see the success that subscription-based content services like Hulu and Netflix have enjoyed but those companies made massive investments in their own content. Relying on another business to present content for you means you have little control over how work is presented and what it’s paired with. What does it mean for a top quality publisher brand like The New Yorker to have its articles mixed seamlessly with low-quality content? Nothing good.  

A News Service by Non-Media Experts

Publishers have brand power that has been built up over decades. Apple News+ flattens that when low-quality content and premium content are placed next to each other. The ability of a publication to differentiate itself diminishes when it becomes part of an aggregation scenario. Judging by some of the titles on offer via Apple News+ the oversight of the platform isn’t coming from media professionals, or even publishing professionals. It’s just about volume. From an editorial perspective, the only true “new” factor for readers is that their content will be consolidated and they can browse multiple publishers within one sitting. To achieve this consolidation, Apple will have to disconnect content from the brands of the publishers that created it. For publishers who have spent decades building a visual aesthetic, this is a body blow to their value proposition. 

Any question about oversight of the publications that get into Apple News+ was not addressed by the announcement of its launch. Both publishers and shareholders should be concerned by this omission. You only have to look at Apple’s app store to realize that rigorous editorial work is not really one of the company’s core competencies. Instead, they specialize in algorithm-driven discovery. By definition, that removes the human element that is central to high-quality publications. It also begs the question: will the company control the quality of the content in this new marketplace or will mischief makers swoop in to game the system in the name of quick monetization?

Another Opportunity to Game Another System

Every time a new aggregator emerges that controls discoverability with some kind of algorithm, people figure out how to optimize it. Rogue content marketers are primed for the kind of marketplace Apple News+ creates. We’ve seen this happen in every place where search and discoverability has a major impact on financial results. It happened with Google, Amazon, and Facebook — and now again with Apple.

An adjacent SEO industry will undoubtedly evolve within Apple News+. In any online marketplace, people inevitably try to optimize search results to gain higher exposure. If publishers get paid based on reading time (or engagement time or some other metric) it just creates an incentive for people try to game the system by writing content in a way that will get more exposure. This is a problem for periodicals because, as more publishers enter the marketplace, it takes more effort to be seen by readers and eventually editorial standards begin to warp in order to appease the algorithms.  

Wait and See

Apple is used to having its own way. The company changed the distribution model for music and executives at the company may envision doing the same for periodicals. To avoid the fate of record companies, magazines and newspapers might want to wait before jumping into the Apple News+ marketplace. After a year or so, publishers will be able to see how the subscription service is doing and better judge whether or not it is worth getting involved. When it comes to Apple News+, leaders in the news media should proceed with extreme caution and avoid becoming the supplicants of a new algorithm. And, at a time when the value of the media is being attacked from different sides, they should consider what that algorithm will do to their broader mission. 

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