The Media Today

With Apple News+, will publishers get what they bargained for?

March 26, 2019

Yesterday, Apple gave a glimpse into how it plans to sink its teeth into the media business. Onstage in the Steve Jobs Theater, Apple unveiled a series of services from third parties onto which it will slap its own name and branding. Apple Arcade is a subscription service inside the App Store for third-party gaming apps. Apple Card is a shiny new titanium, laser-etched, Apple-branded credit card integrated into its Apple Pay mobile payments app. Apple TV Channels, Apple’s subscription video service, offers video content within its TV app, mainly selling video from channels like Starz and HBO. The company trotted out Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, and Steven Spielberg to talk about the original programming they’re creating for Apple. And Apple News+, its subscription news service, is replete with newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and more than 200 magazines, with a $9.99-per-month price tag and free sharing with family accounts.

Last year, Apple bought Texture, the Hulu-for-magazines app created a decade ago by a group of magazine publishers in an effort to control how their product was distributed at a time of upheaval for the print magazine industry. (Ironically, part of the original premise of Texture, nee Next Issue, was to keep magazine publishers from ceding distribution and sale of their magazines to tech giants.) Apple News+ more or less seems to have taken on the interface of Texture. For the low, low cost of $10 a month, Tim Cook said onstage, you’re getting quite a value: you’d have to pay $8,000 to subscribe to each of the publications included in its bundle individually per year. Now, all in one place, you get everything from the Los Angeles Times to The Skimm to three of New York magazine’s brands to every magazine from Popular Woodworking to Midwest Living. For a reader, it’s a no-brainer, from both a cost and a convenience perspective.

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For publishers, outcomes are less clear-cut. Apple isn’t the first tech company to extend an offer to publishers.. The Apple News+ plan feels reminiscent of the deals publishers made with Facebook in recent years. Questions remain about the history of Facebook’s relationship with publishers, making desperate media companies dependent on the algorithm to bring in traffic and then changing the algorithm, only to repeat the process with video a couple years later. The comparison isn’t perfect, of course—for one, Apple went to great lengths on Monday to assure users in a TV ad that it is a proponent of privacy and security, and unlike other companies, it doesn’t know what you’re watching or reading, and won’t serve you ads based on your browsing or buying habits.

If there’s one thing Apple has the potential to do well with this news initiative, it’s driving lots of news to people who might not have otherwise ever seen it, but who have more money and consume more news than other consumers might. (Some newspapers, like The Washington Post and The New York Times declined to do deals with Apple, but the Wall Street Journal’s Apple deal will “drive scale among new readers” and “as a result, our newsroom will grow,” Dow Jones CEO William Lewis said in an internal memo. The paper also said it will go on a hiring spree to staff up for its Apple initiative.) While Facebook and Google go full algorithm in their news operations, Apple is using human editors and a mix of curated and personalized news stories.

But Apple’s presentation leaves a lot of unknowns and concerns. For one, Apple gets 50 percent of the revenue, and doesn’t share data with publishers. It’s still not clear how much partner content Apple News+ will offer users. Publishers may feel soothed by the idea of Apple’s reach—Oprah drove the appeal of reach home later on: “[Apple is] in a billion pockets, y’all. A billion pockets.”  But, as the Times’ Kevin Roose points out, Apple is acting like it’s reinventing the wheel when its offerings are nothing new to anyone who has consumed news in the past, oh, several centuries: “I’m sure Apple News+ will be fine, but man is it weird to hear a tech company describing “human-curated news” as some high-concept innovation, and not the way news was selected and distributed for 400 years before the sorted feed era.”

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If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that reach doesn’t automatically equate to revenue, but publishers so desperately want reach that they’re willing to relinquish control to a giant proprietary tech platform to get it. Such desperation for eyeballs on stories could mean that publishers  once again trust a tech giant again without fully understanding what they’ve signed up for.

In more tech-as-a-news-service news:

  • Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton has an in-depth look at how Apple News+ is a poor user experience, in part because many magazines still aren’t optimized for digital like this.
  • There’s still a lot of ambiguity surrounding Apple’s streaming service. Among the outstanding questions following Monday’s announcement: what will be included in Apple’s new streaming service? And how much will it cost?
  • While Apple was announcing all of this, YouTube doubled down on its original video content, denying a Bloomberg report that it has stopped accepting pitches for scripted series.

Other notable stories:

  • A quite long and comprehensive list of Medium’s pivots from 2012 to present day. Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owens sums it up best: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me seven times, well…how much money do you have, again?”
  • The Trump campaign formally complained in a statement to TV producers on Monday that politicians are being allowed to go on television and make “outlandish, false claims.”
  • News outlets say that stories and videos about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez result in a “Trump bump”-like phenomenon, her popularity boosting views and clicks, Bloomberg reports.
  • A dispatch from The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea, who examines shrinking local news coverage, Louisville’s Courier-Journal, and the costs of focusing on environmental stories in coal country.
  • Writing for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan draws a distinction between cable pundits and Twitter armchair Russia experts and the serious journalists who should stand by and be proud of their work covering news related to the Mueller report.
  • How the anti-Trump Mueller superfans — the ones who downloaded the podcast “Mueller, She Wrote” and sang “We Wish You a Mueller Christmas” — are handling their disappointment. A great report from the Times’ Astead Herndon and Richard Fausset.

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Maya Kosoff is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She's written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Allure, and Business Insider.