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“Little in the way of direct relationships with readers”: Why The New York Times cut Apple News out

“It’s time to re-examine all of our relationships with the big platforms.”

Earlier this year, we reported about trouble brewing in the Apple News universe, and the growing industry consensus that Apple’s “News+ appears to be a flop.”

There’s little of news in News+, and certain potential groundbreaking innovations that may have breathed new life into the service, are yet to see the light of day outside Apple Park. 

The free version of Apple News offers a much larger array of news, of course, and one of its strengths is the association with some very big-name publishers. But now even that pillar seems to be crumbling. 

The New York Times has announced that it is exiting its partnership with Apple’s news aggregator, and its articles will no longer appear in the curated Apple News feed.

Apple News does not align with our strategy to fund quality journalism by building direct relationships with paying readers,” a New York Times spokesperson said.

We believe quality publishers should be fairly compensated for the expensive proposition of creating and providing platforms valuable independent journalism.

New York Times spokesperson

The publisher, which has made a major push to build up its subscription base in recent years, said Apple had given it little in the way of direct relationships with readers, and little control over the business.

Although Apple’s aggressive promotion of Apple News has given it an audience of over 125 million monthly readers, the app has generated little revenue for news publishers. On top of that, for any subscriptions sold in the app, Apple also takes a 30% cut.

In a memo announcing the change, Times COO Meredith Kopit Levien said the company wants “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.”

At this moment, it doesn’t make sense for us to participate in Apple News anymore.

Meredith Kopit Levien, New York Times COO

In her note to employees, Levien expressed confidence that exiting the partnership with Apple News would not have “a material impact” on The Times’s business.

Not only that, there are also indications that The Times is taking a magnifying glass to its relationships with all major platforms.

It’s time to re-examine all of our relationships with the big platforms,” Levien told Ken Doctor, news industry analyst and the author of Newsonomics. “And we’re reexamining them on three axes that are all interrelated, but different with each of the players.”

Levien’s three axes are:

  1. What role does the platform play in helping bring audiences,
  2. What role the platform plays in helping scale direct relationships with people, and getting them to form a habit and ultimately pay, and 
  3. What’s the value exchange equation, “recognizing that these companies get substantial value from our investment in original journalism”

In the last year, 18 months, we’re thinking really hard about all of our relationships in this context,” she added.

In short, the Times audience machine is proving more able to move towards its goal — 10 million subscribers in 2025 — on its own.

Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics

While discussing the Gray Lady’s unceremonious breakup with Apple News, Ken notes, “On its own, that may seem like just one more move in the chess game between major news companies and the platforms. But it could also be an indication of a more geologic movement.”

Calling it a “publisher/platform dance,” he says, “Think of this as the next starting point for negotiation — the sort of negotiation common when players are on a more even playing field, reassessing their mutual value.”

“We tend to be quite leery about the idea of almost habituating people to find our journalism somewhere else,” Mark Thompson, The Times’s CEO, said in an interview with Reuters last year. “We’re also generically worried about our journalism being scrambled in a kind of Magimix (blender) with everyone else’s journalism.”

Thompson earlier said that Apple News+ “jumbled different news sources into these superficially attractive mixtures” making it difficult for users to know which publication they’re consuming.

With the media business becoming an increasingly precarious market now squeezed even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible the Times’ defection could lead to other publishers looking to strike out on their own, too.

Chaim Gartenberg, News Editor for The Verge

On the other hand, Ken contendsThe Times’ move could be highly specific to the Times and not a harbinger of shifts to come.”

“After all, no one else has been able to accomplish what the Times has: 6 million total subscribers, more than triple the number it had at the height of print, and on pace to reach its goal of 10 million in 2025.”

For its part, Apple said in a statement that “The New York Times has only offered Apple News a few stories per day,” so there shouldn’t be too much of a change in the overall content for readers. 

“We are also committed to supporting quality journalism through the proven business models of advertising, subscriptions, and commerce.”

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