AppleNews+: The short long history of publisher-platform fights

The announcement of the long-mooted AppleNews+ was, broadly, not a surprise. Publishers had been aware that a new subscription product from Apple was coming down the pipe for months, and based on leaks we mostly knew exactly what was being announced.

Apple: defying gravity?

AppleNews+ is a subscription-based magazine and news app that builds on Apple’s existing work with Texture. Priced at $9.99 per month in the United States, the service sells itself to news and magazine publishers on the basis that it gets them into the pockets of potentially every single person who owns an iPhone.

However, what was a surprise (albeit a welcome one) was the reaction of the newspaper organisations, of which only the Wall Street Journal was tempted into the AppleNews+ scheme. For the most part, where the reaction wasn’t muted, it was very negative, with people pointing out the offer to publishers was a recipe for brand destruction. It appears that – finally – news publishers are shaking off the desire for scale above all else, and focusing instead on protecting their ecosystem from new players who don’t have their interests at heart. Here’s how we got to this point.

Almost four years ago, Emily Bell was arguing that publishers would trade context and control “if it made them money.” Since then it’s become very obvious that it was a historic mistake for publishers to let Facebook and other platforms usurp the direct relationship they had with the users. The primary asset that media organisations have is their audience; by ceding it, traditional publishers decreased the value of their proposition – almost irrevocably.

Facebook is the worst offender here. In 2016 it was already being described as a ‘frenemy’ to publishers. It offered the promise of exposure within an unfiltered and to-scale platform with, only it was to the detriment of quality of content. As respectable media outlets scrambled for eyeballs, newsfeeds became populated with dumb click bait, seemingly the content with the best odds of making it through Facebook’s algorithmic “smart pipes.”

When Facebook began selling advertising on Instant Articles on behalf of publishers, it annexed their brand even further. By surrendering their advertising relationships, publishers effectively demonetised their content and reduced their brands to that of a ghostwriter. Never quite achieving the desired Stockholm syndrome, Facebook has since flipflopped on its relationship with publishers.

Last year, a study by Colombia Journalism Review found that 38 of the 72 Instant Articles launch partner publications – including the New York Times and Washington Post – have dumped the Facebook controlled format altogether. This resulted in Zuckerberg announcing a new scheme to support quality news. Head of Global News Partnerships, Campbell Brown, has meanwhile said news publishers should not rely on the social giant despite last year saying the partnership was necessary for survival.

Facebook is far from the only frenemy, however. Both Google and Medium are considered unsafe shores for media companies. So news publishers are (quite rightly) asking where the money is coming from. And in the case of AppleNews+… it isn’t coming, it’s going. Frederic Filloux’s findings show that by joining Apple News+, the US magazine industry stands to lose 50% of its revenue per reader and that for each magazine reader switching to the platform, they would need to recruit one additional subscriber, only to preserve the size of the sector. This goes some way in explaining the rumoured failures on Apple’s part to get NYT and other titles to hand over the fruits of their substantial digital subscription businesses, painstakingly cultivated over recent years to offset the industry’s advertising collapse.

It’s well past time that news publishers reclaimed ownership of the context in which their content appears. There are no absolute guarantees that media companies can find a way to stay afloat – but choosing to clamber into Apple’s leaky life raft is almost guaranteed to end badly for all involved.

Rhea Mills & Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.