Newspapers react with scepticism to Apple News+ launch

Apple’s announcement about the launch of “Apple News+” has sparked lots of discussions in our office, both among our team and our customers and publisher community, including the Danish Media Innovation Tour that visited us this week. We’re sharing some of those insights, and we welcome any other comments or questions on this launch. But first, a quick rundown on the new launch:

  • Starting this week, readers in the US and Canada can subscribe to Apple News+ for 9.99 USD a month to have access to over 300 magazines and newspapers
  • Apple plans to expand this service to Australia and the UK later this year, and perhaps in more European countries later on
  • Brands already signed up include Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Time, New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal

Creating habits for Apple, not with your content

We know habit formation in this digital age is on the forefront of many publishers’ minds this year especially, and it is something we are researching extensively ourselves as well. That’s why this move from Apple has been met with such scepticism, in a time when habit formation is key and publishers have already been burned by platforms before (such as Facebook’s decision to limit the number of news stories in users’ feeds) It’s only expected that any new initiatives from tech giants will be greeted by wary publishers.

The New York Times has taken a strong stance on this as well, with CEO Mark Thompson explaining last week at the Oxford Media Convention in England that his team has been rethinking its relationships with platforms. They’ve already cut the number of stories they give to Apple’s original news app, and have said they will not be joining Apple News+ because they do not want to habituate people to finding their journalism somewhere else. This decision comes down to the basic fact that when readers come to associate your content with Apple, instead of with your brand, they get in the habit of reading “Apple News+”, not The New York Times for example. We’ve seen this before with Facebook especially, something that is well examined in the report from Reuters “‘I Saw the News on Facebook’: Brand Attribution when Accessing News from Distributed Environments”.

There was a similar sentiment heard amongst the Danish publishers who visited us this week, who agree that it is key to build reader habits with their own content, not with an app from Apple.

Limited value for publishers

Not only do publishers not create habits with their readers through Apple News+, Apple is asking publishers to give over 50% of any revenue they generate. This is higher than the 30% Apple usually takes from subscriptions sold through its App Store. Considering the monthly subscription cost is 9.99 USD, to be shared over the relevant participating publishers, and Apple will allow family sharing for Apple News+, it is unclear even how much revenue publishers can generate. Publishers will receive a split of the monthly subscription cost based on how much readers engage with their stories, but how exactly will engagement be measured? Engagement is key for building a longterm relationship with readers, but does this engagement transfer over to the brand’s content on their own platforms or stay with just Apple News+?

Additionally, publishers will not be able to develop a direct relationship with readers through Apple News+. Similar to the issues with Facebook and Google News before, publishers have no control over the placement of their stories. They’re also not able to control technical issues, such as the reported crashes many users experienced just after the launch.

More suited for magazine publishers in the longterm

Ultimately, newspapers might just not be the right fit for Apple News+. This shouldn’t be too big of a surprise, as Apple News+ is after all based on Texture, the digital kiosk for magazines that Apple bought last year. While it’s true The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times have signed on to Apple News+, the other titles that will be offered are mainly magazines with a few new products from digital native brands (such as The Highlight from Vox).

Even The Wall Street Journal isn’t offering its full edition, instead just a “curated collection of general interest news“. It will be interesting to see how this will play out for them, will they alienate their subscribers who pay more than $9.99 for month? Plus even with ‘news’ in its name, Apple News+ doesn’t actually offer much news at all. This is especially true for local news, as Joshua Benton put it so succinctly for Nieman Lab, “Unless you happen to live in Los Angeles, Apple News Plus will offer you approximately zero news about your local community“.

Tech giants “fishing in the pond of subscribers”

We’ve seen similar issues play out before, with digital kiosks struggling to keep European publishers on board after initial enthusiasm. For example, NRC left Blendle in 2017 due to a lack of financial returns from their partnership, as well as the lack of control over the product experience (stories on Blendle did not have the enrichments such as videos or links that NRC’s website allowed for).

Beyond examples such as Apple and Blendle, we know more and more tech companies have been trying to acquire newspaper subscribers, with Facebook and Google leading that game. We will investigate this further in a later post, check back soon.

This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.


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