Publishing Top Stories

Is hosting your content on Apple News actually worth it?

In late September, Slate’s Will Oremus published a blockbuster feature story on a topic that’s been consistently discussed within the publishing industry for the last year: what value does Apple News actually drive for publishers?

Sure, it delivers lots of traffic, with some news orgs reporting that it’s surpassed Facebook in terms of referrals, but because Apple News doesn’t link out to news stories — rather, it hosts them natively — that traffic isn’t generating a ton of ad revenue. In a line that went on to be widely quoted across Twitter, Oremus revealed that “Slate makes more money from a single article that gets 50,000 page views on its site than it does from the 6 million page views it receives on Apple News in an average month.” A follow up article from Digiday reported that The New York Post made a paltry $600 over a six-month period.

So this begs the question: is hosting your content on Apple News actually worth it? After all, all the pageviews in the world are virtually meaningless unless they translate into actual money. I decided to round up the most compelling arguments that publishers should stay on Apple News and then assess whether these arguments hold water:

Apple has the scale; the ad revenue will follow

Say what you will about Apple News, but it’s actually popular with users, unlike Apple’s previous collaborations with publishers. When the iPad first launched, publishers — especially magazines — hailed it as an industry savior, the device that would put the toothpaste back in the tube. Rupert Murdoch famously launched an iPad-only newspaper, dumping tens of millions of dollars into the project before being forced to shutter it due to the lack of user adoption. Apple Newsstand, another product it launched, was also a flop.

Though I couldn’t find a recent user count for Apple News, it was claiming to have 70 million active users back in 2016, and recent articles have reported a surge in publisher traffic that would indicate mass adoption.

So now that Apple News has the scale, the ad sales will naturally follow. Right? After all, Facebook and Google, which collectively hold an online advertising duoply, spent years achieving scale before they launched their blockbuster ad products.

But Apple has a pretty poor track record when it comes to ads, especially since it’s much more protective of its user data compared to other platforms. In fact, it gave up trying to sell ads on Apple News back in 2016, choosing instead to outsource this function to NBCU. But every since NBCU took over, publishers haven’t seen much improvement in yield.

Apple recently began allowing publishers to plug Google’s Doubleclick for Publishers into Apple News, but again, they’re severely restricted in how they can leverage targeting data. In fact, publishers can only target based on location, gender, and age group, a far cry from the targeting features they utilize with traditional programmatic advertising.

Apple News will deliver paying subscribers

Apple might not be great at ads, but it sure is good at getting its affluent users to open up their wallets and pay for stuff. Apple Music, for instance, now has over 50 million paying subscribers.

In March, Apple bought an app called Texture. It applies an Apple Music/Spotify approach of aggregating magazine articles and then paying the publishers based on consumption volume for each issue/article.

It’s reportedly planning to integrate the app into Apple News, and it’s approached subscription publishers like The New York Times and Washington Post about participating in whatever this integrated product ends up being.

Apple News’ real value might involve letting publishers opt in to this paywall section of the app and rewarding them for the amount of engagement they receive, just as Spotify pays royalties for the songs you listen to.

Of course, we don’t yet know the criteria for getting your publication behind the paywall, and some publishers that run already-successful subscription business models — The New York Times, for instance — might worry about cannibalizing their own potential user base.

You can use Apple News’ massive reach to market other products

Apple News isn’t generating a lot of direct revenue for publishers, but some have seen success with trying to convert casual Apple News readers into subscribers of their own products, paid or otherwise.

Slate, for instance, is planning to use its ad slots in Apple News to promote its paid Slate Plus membership program. The Washington Post has also seen some success in driving subscription sales:

“[We have] had a subscription offer in Apple News since the launch of iOS 10, and we have been pleasantly surprised by this audience’s propensity to subscribe. After only a year, Apple News is a thriving subscription channel for us,” [Washington Post lead product manager Dave Merrell] said.

Of course, any subscription sold directly through from the Apple News app results in Apple getting its 30 percent cut. Publishers might do better trying to leverage the app’s audience to drive newsletter subscriptions, and then attempting to convert those readers into paying subscribers further down the line when they’re no longer on the app.

Unlike Facebook, Apple News’ priorities are directly aligned with publishers

Part of the reason that publishers are so interested in Apple News right now is because they’ve grown weary of the whiplash caused by Facebook’s changing priorities. At times, Facebook has courted publishers, only to suddenly shift gears in its pursuit of a new shiny object. Facebook’s media liaison Campbell Brown recently shocked news orgs when she claimed that if these orgs didn’t continue working closely with Facebook, “I’ll be holding your hands with your dying business like in a hospice.” (Facebook later denied that she said this).

Apple News, on the other hand, has been actively hiring journalists and is open about the fact that its most prominent story placements are handpicked by human editors. In fact, it’s set up Slack channels where editors from various news orgs can pitch them on articles they think should be featured in the app.

Of course, as is often the case, not all publishers are treated equally, and larger publishers are often given higher priority over smaller ones. Research from the Tow Center found that the vast majority of featured stories in the app come from a just a small handful of publishers, and under 4 percent of coveted slots go to regionally-focused publishers.

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If it were up to publishers, all readers would come directly through the homepage of their websites, and they wouldn’t have to rely on these massive platforms for distribution. While platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have led to the first jump in revenue for the music industry in over a decade, no platforms have delivered such a magic bullet for the news industry.

Hence the tradeoffs publishers must weigh whenever they mull wading onto a new platform. In the long run, Apple News might end up being a boon to the publishing industry, but as of yet, the magic bullet has yet to materialize.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Photo by Rishi Deep on Unsplash

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