Apple has long had a knack for persuading people to pay for quality – the App Store alone generates $1 billion (£0.77 billion) a week. If ever there were an industry in need of such a skill, it’s the media.
Conventional wisdom says the public appetite for paying for journalism is waning - evidence of a few coronavirus subscription boosts notwithstanding. Apple News+, a £9.99 per month, all-you-can-eat subscription service that launched in 2019, is trying to buck the trend. The “+” in Apple News+ (which differentiates it from the free Apple News aggregator) stands for human curation, print-adjacent prestige and a beautifully designed app experience with digital editions of titles such as the Times, Empire, Elle and Rolling Stone available in the UK (WIRED publisher Condé Nast Britain has not signed up to the service).
It isn’t ground-breaking, but Apple does execute the concept well. And News+ prioritises the exact things publishers themselves respect: quality reporting, editorial voice, formally defined editions. The problem? Apple has declined to release subscriber numbers, but reports from CNBC in late 2019 suggest that after an initial cohort of 200,000 paying users in the US, that figure has failed to substantially increase.
In February 2020, former Condé Nast executive Liz Schimel left her role as head of business for Apple News, adding to rumours that News+ may be included in an entertainment bundle with the likes of Apple Music and TV+ in the future rather than standing on its own as a paid service. If News+ is bundled, perhaps at this year's virtual WWDC in late June, this could suggest that the subscription price for News+ alone is too high for users but too low for publishers who have held out on joining the service (Apple is understood to split revenue 50/50 with publishers).
It has competition, too. News+ is based on subscription app Texture, which the company acquired in 2018 and which was originally founded in 2012 – the same year as magazine platform Readly. With an offering of 5,000 titles for £7.99 a month, Readly CEO Maria Hedengren believes that the “22 billion data points” on demographics, reading habits, cover performance and benchmarking against competitors that her company shares with publishers outperforms what Apple offers. “It’s a win-win collaboration; it helps to develop their print business,” she says. Readly is also testing out additional targeted ad pages inserted into digital magazines in Sweden and Germany.
What will the general public pay for? Aside from the newspaper-and-water bundles at WH Smith and the various platforms included in Amazon’s Prime membership scheme, there’s early signs that, building on the popularity of podcasts, audio treatments of articles may be able to command monthly fees.
Audm, which costs £7.99 a month and has pieces from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The LRB; and Curio, which at £5.99 offers the FT, the Economist, Bloomberg and others, use voice actors to narrate stories with a focus on quality journalism that is often behind a paywall online. The New York Times , which as of March 2020 owns Audm, is experimenting with adding recordings to its successful The Daily podcast feed as 'The Sunday Read' editions.
Apple itself launched iTunes Spoken Editions in 2016 with more than 40 publications signed on. The project had since gone quiet, until in early May, Digiday reported that Apple has pitched a similar offering to Audm and Curio to at least four publishers. It's not official yet, another likely WWDC announcement, but the report indicates that publishers would pitch selected stories. Apple would cover the production costs and roll these audio stories into the News+ performance metrics, such as the duration of time readers/listeners spend with each publication, that determine how much publishers are paid each month.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Apple as digital newsagent is publishers going it alone, particularly after previous disappointing tech company collaborations such as Facebook Watch video. Some newspapers, including The Guardian and the i paper, have launched or relaunched digital edition apps. “Smaller, independent publishers will want to create their own apps,” says media consultant Mary Hogarth. “Particularly those aiming to build a community, such as The Mint or Positive News.”
Unlike publishers, Apple can afford to look beyond revenues at what it has built with the free Apple News service – a success in terms of influence. The service now has more than 125 million monthly active users worldwide according to Tim Cook's latest earnings call; Comscore estimates at least 11 million are in the UK. The curation of the editorial team, led by former New York magazine executive Lauren Kern, tends to align with the stories that editors want to promote more than formats rewarded by Google’s algorithms.
It’s even experimenting with election coverage: Apple News livestreams are planned for the US 2020 general election, and a dedicated guide to the 2019 UK election was highlighted in the app and via push alerts. In short, Apple News has the kind of influence that high-quality, trusted publications should be aware of. It just might not prove to be the financial lifebelt they are looking for.