Earlier this year, Apple launched its new subscription service called “Apple News Plus” in the US and Canada, and the company plans to roll out the service in the UK, continental Europe, and Australia in fall 2019. As is so often the case with Apple announcements, the reactions after the launch ranged from “disappointment” to “the antidote to Facebook’s garbage.”
Many publishers are uncertain about the new service: What does Apple News Plus offer readers and publishers? Does it make sense for publishers to participate? As one of Europe’s leading digital publishing platforms, below is an overview of the most important facts we think you should know about Apple News Plus.
A quick overview:
- How many subscribers are there?
- How is the pricing?
- Which publishers participate?
- How do magazines look like?
- Is there ad tracking?
- Is Apple News Plus the opposite of Facebook?
- Should you be in?
1. How many subscribers does Apples News Plus have?
First of all let me quickly clarify what Apple News Plus is: It is a paid extension of Apple News and curates all the news content from across the web in a handy iOS interface as app. This paid subscription brings also in magazine articles that would otherwise be behind paywalls.
According to Apple, Apple News Plus saw 200,000 subscribers within the first 48 hours after launch. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, mentioned by comparison that the free-of-charge Apple News Service has 85 million monthly active users and is the #1 news app in the world. Also, each month, over 5 billion articles are read in Apple News. Because of these numbers, publishers need to take this new publishing channel seriously.
2. How much is Apple News Plus?
For Apple, investing in a new subscription service makes complete sense – whilst its iPhone business is in decline, its subscription services like the app store, Apple Music and Apple Care are rising. Revenue for these services rose 19% to a record $10.9 billion in the last set of results.
So, it’s only fair to ask: How could Apple achieve that? Where could the “new” money come from?
Apple News Plus operates on the Spotify/Netflix model: Once readers are in they have access to everything. In the US, the subscription price is $9.99 a month, after a free one-month trial. Family sharing is also available at no extra charge for up to six family members.
In Apple’s own words: Apple News Plus includes access to content that would separately amount to a cost of over $8,000 per year.
Apple takes their 50% cut of all subscription revenue leaving publishers to split the rest based on how many people read their stories. For many publishers this is a key concern, because they typically make far more money with their own subscription model.
3. Which publishers already participate in Apple News Plus?
Renowned publications are in
In the US there are over 300 magazines included in Apple News Plus, across a number of categories, including lifestyle, entertainment, news and more. Apple has made deals with most of the major magazine publishers like Conde Nast, Hearst, Time Inc. and Meredith.
Renowned publications such as Vogue, National Geographic Magazine, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal have come on board.
Here’s a selection of participating titles:
- Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times
- News & Politics: Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic
- Finance & Business: Forbes, Money, Inc. Magazine
- Lifestyle: ELLE, Vogue, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, GQ
- Science and Tech: Wired, National Geographic, CNET
- Entertainment: Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, People, OK
- Sports: Runners World, Sports Illustrated
Two important players are missing
Just as with iTunes’ early day efforts to get record labels on board, Apple’s approach of publishers has had mixed results. Even though Apple was able to get some renowned publications on board, it missed out on deals with the Washington Post and New York Times.
In an interview with Reuters Mark Thompson, CEO of New York Times, explained his reasons not to participate as follows: “We tend to be quite leery about the idea of almost habituating people to find our journalism somewhere else. We’re also generically worried about our journalism being scrambled in a kind of Magimix (blender) with everyone else’s journalism.”
For Apple this is a big loss, because the New York Times is the biggest U.S. newspaper, with approximately 4 million subscribers.
There are pros and cons regarding Apple News Plus. Many are convinced that participating is a good idea, but how does participation look like? Are they all in? Let me give you an example based on the Wall Street Journal.
What does ”participating” really mean?
The publishing industry was more than surprised when Wall Street Journal (WSJ) stated that they will be part of Apple’s $9.99 monthly bundle. Why? Because Wall Street Journal’s annual subscription costs hundreds of dollars annually – approx. $38.99 per month. How can the Journal profit from this deal?
CNN’s Brian Stelter reported on Twitter that, according to an internal memo, Apple News Plus users would get access to “a curated collection of general interest news.” To access full information users would still need to subscribe to WSJ.
Amol Sharma, a Journal reporter tweeted that Apple News Plus subscribers will have “access to almost all WSJ articles, but the app will only surface general-interest news”, and that WSJ seems to expect that most users won’t seek much beyond that.
4. How do magazines look in Apple News Plus?
Magazines can look spectacular
For magazines, strong aesthetics are vital, not least the design and artwork. Apple has worked together with publishers to bring the magazines to life and to create a new experience for their News Plus app.
Magazines like Sport Illustrated and The New Yorker have iPad-friendly designs, spectacular photography, animated covers, well-formatted text and dynamic contents pages. They are a pleasure to read. At the end of the day, the reading experience is still extremely crucial.
However, there are some magazines (like Total Film) which are still only PDF files of the print edition and whilst they are legible on an iPad, they are a real pain on an iPhone. Over time, I’d personally expect there to be more consistency and better quality.
UI of app needs improvement
After Apple’s launch in the US & Canada publishers and readers complained about the buggy and chaotic interface of the News Plus app. They said that magazines are not organized and their sizes do not match. The Verge called it “messy, but good enough”.
Apple has told publishers that it’s “working on making the product more intuitive for users while addressing publisher-side concerns as well.” In March 2019, Apple’s Senior Vice President, Eddy Cue said that Apple had “hundreds” of people working to make Apple News Plus better.
5. Is there ad tracking with Apple News Plus?
Apple promises that it won’t know what readers read in Apple News Plus, and it won’t allow advertisers to track them. This would be one of the biggest advantages for readers. “What you read in Apple News will not follow you across the web,” says the company. The subscription is supposed to be the product, not the data of readers.
For publishers this approach means that customer data won’t be shared with them. They only will be able to see which content is being read.
Apple explains that as users read, the app learns what they are interested in, then suggests stories relevant to them. That’s how the service will be personalised to interests of readers.
6. How is Apple News Plus the opposite of Facebook?
The challenge of Facebook & Co.
With Apple News, Apple has entered the world of news with a service that is read by 85 million people. As opposed to Google, Facebook and Twitter who were criticised for their sometimes negative influence over the spread of information, Apple has so far avoided controversy.
One big reason is that while the others rely on algorithms to pick headlines, Apple uses humans. Experts claim that, when it comes to fake news, AI is not up for the job. AI can’t understand fake news, because AI can’t write. So, who can?
News curated by humans
Facebook for example uses artificial intelligence to sort through fake news and fact-based information. Apple has gone the other direction with its human-led approach.
Humans pick the app’s top stories, not algorithms. Humans take into account the trustworthiness of a publication and the credibility of a story before pushing it out to the masses. There is no algorithm leading readers to fake news that have tons of engagement because they inspire fear or outrage.
Apple is convinced they offer a remedy for the poor ways people often consume news in the internet era, and at the same time be so a lifeline for quality journalism – and democracy. While Apple’s strategy is not infallible, it might be the only right way to do it.
7. Should you be in Apple News Plus?
There two things that I would consider:
- How Wall Street Journal is doing it might be a good example. They offer their direct customers more than what they can get on Apple News Plus. Many readers claim that on Apple News Plus they have discovered interesting articles and magazines they would never have bought. So, you can use Apple News Plus as an acquisition channel for your own platforms instead of cannibalizing your own paid subscription.
- Just as on Facebook and Google News before, publishers will get no control over the placement of their stories, or direct relationship with their subscribers. For publishers who do not participate in Apple News Plus giving up control of their content and product is the biggest concern. Publishers won’t get the data to target visitors and analyze behavior.
As I explained above, there are both potential risks and upsides.
It’s certainly not clear yet if Apple’s approach will really help publishers. Only time will tell. On the other hand, the service is likely to help publishers reach a vastly wider audience. Also, Apple is highly motivated to make a success of their subscription-based services as its iPhone hardware business slows down.
And readers want to consume content without ad tracking in a way that respects their privacy.
Effectively, the Apple News Plus is webifying the magazine world, and this could be where Apple News Plus finds its true purpose even though the usability of the app is not perfect… yet.
Head of Marketing, SPRYLAB
About: SpryLab was founded in 2007 by Stephan Heck and Benjamin Kolb. The company now employs more than 50 people and supports publishers in creating and distributing unique content. Clients include major media houses such as Axel Springer, Ringier, TI Media, News Corp, Bauer Media, Hubert Burda and Aller Media. Find out more here.