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Apple News+ to intercept publisher traffic, with iOS 14 update

One topic Tim Cook apparently wasn’t quizzed hard enough on in his Congress appearance was the future of its Apple News product. 

Apple’s upcoming operating system, iOS 14 (which is still in beta) will redirect News+ subscribers to the Apple News app by default if they click on a story from a publisher enrolled in Apple News+.

The intercept was spotted on Tuesday by Scroll founder Tony Haile, who demonstrated that clicking on a publisher’s link – one that appears to go to the website – in fact opens the story in the Apple News app instead.

The redirect has been replicated by multiple industry professionals, and confirmed on the MacRumours website, who have also found the toggle in Settings which is set to open it by default.

Image via MacRumours

So far, this only appears to affect Apple News+ subscribers and publishers. But it is a concerning step for any publisher with a presence in Apple News.

Not only does this bypass any ad revenue publishers make on their own sites, but it also makes these readers invisible to most web analytics tools. Apple is notoriously cagey about what user data they release to publishers on their News product, and this will do nothing to serve those publishers trying to become more reliant on their own first-party data.

Halle speculates about the consequences of this interception in his Twitter thread. “Any strategic rationale that Apple News+ represents a separate channel/audience is now gone,” he says. “This directly cannibalizes a publishers’ core subscription audience.”

This means that any publishers who have subscriptions at their core will have to carefully consider their relationship with Apple News. There will be limited opportunities to promote subscription products or get to know the reader if these interactions default to the News app.

Haile also points out that this interception would require cross-site tracking; something that sits uncomfortably with Apple’s strong pro-privacy stance. “In this case, not only is Apple engaging in cross-site tracking, but is doing so as a default opt-in buried in the settings,” he highlights. “[They are] making a big move to move user behaviour from a web that they don’t control to an app where they do.”

The journey makes more sense for News+ subscribers, who can bypass paywalls and read content straight in the News+ app. But this is always the way Apple will fall, on the side of convenience for its users, not the wider publishing ecosystem.

A bad Apple?

This appears to be a bold move in order to grow a desperately struggling product. More than a year since launching News+, the tech giant has reportedly been unable to grow the subscriber base, and publishers have grown frustrated with the lack of revenue from either subscriptions or advertising.

Intercepting traffic in this way may give them a way to scale News+ quickly and address some of those issues with subscriber and ad revenue with the aim of enticing more publishers to the platform. But it’s a gamble, and moves like this will alienate the publishing community Apple News is depending on for content.

It will almost certainly trigger some serious conversations among publishing executives, a number of whom will be eyeing up the exit after the New York Times cut Apple News out a month ago

In a memo announcing their exit, Times COO Meredith Kopit Levien said that the company wanted “a direct path for sending those readers back into our environments, where we control the presentation of our report, the relationships with our readers, and the nature of our business rules.”

Apple is now not just encouraging readers to consume news on their own platform. They’re actively hijacking the user journey to boost their own numbers.

It remains to be seen whether publishers have learned their lessons from being repeatedly burned by depending on platforms over the last five years. In my view, this is not a platform to build your subscription strategy on.