Why Apple News Is Shaking Up The Publishing Business

Why Apple News Is Shaking Up The Publishing Business
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In this opinion piece CEO of Filtered Media Mark Jones says Apple News is fantastic for publishers but they need to be prepared to relinquish control to the tech behemoth…

There’s a glorious irony about Apple News, a new app that’s popped up in the iOS ecosystem.

Like most Apple products, it’s beautiful, intuitive and clever. News junkies like me can hand pick news channels to read, tap into topic-based threads, and happily scroll away through an the endless stream of curated stories.

Meanwhile there’s all manner of geekery going on in the background. Apple’s algorithms silently monitor your behaviour and micro-gestures, watches how long you read a story, whether you swipe left, or just scroll. There’s also an undisclosed number of human beings at Apple playing the editor role, but realistically sheer volume of stories in this system will limit their direct influence.

The average Joe won’t care, of course. We’ll expect the evolution of a personalised feed, and possibly marvel at its ability to learn what we love. There’s a good chance Apple will do a better job at news aggregation than Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, Digg or any of the other news aggregators suddenly in our rear window.

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At this level, I’m impressed. But it’s also hard to overlook the fact Apple just made the news business even more complicated. And goodness knows, it doesn’t need any help.

What’s we’ve got here is a classic Catch 22. Publishers can’t afford to miss out, but they’re also ceding control. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There’s two reasons why.

The first taps into the most fundamental principle in publishing: audience.

Audience is business

Who “owns” the audience? It’s a long-running debate, but if you’re a publisher of any type (including corporate brands with news sites) the simple fact is your audience is your business.

You exist to serve their needs. If you get it right, the financial rewards come in the form of direct subscription or newsstand sales, sponsorships, advertising, events and so on.

But throw Apple News into the mix and it’s a different, more complicated and nuanced story. Apple is now this dominant, highly influential filter between you and your readers in a way that’s different to the world of native news apps.

Apple News packages the world’s news inside a glorious presentation layer, happily available for free because you have an Apple ID, the benevolent repository of credit card details for purchases within the Apple economy.

Granted, Apple News isn’t asking me to buy anything – yet. But the issue for publishers is it’s not asking me to buy anything from them either. In fact, it’s not even an option.

It doesn’t matter if I have a newspaper subscription or digital membership with Apple’s news partners. The simple fact is Apple News trumpets a new reality. I’m an Apple customer and publishers must serve at the pleasure of Apple and its customers.

To reference Seinfeld’s George Costanza, the publishers have no hand. It would seem digital news is quickly becoming Apple’s game.

So who owns the audience? In this context, Apple. It’s got hand. Fistfulls of hand.

Good design wins

Then we get to the design issue. I don’t know your experience, but there are few news apps I truly enjoy. The exception is Digg, but that’s mostly because the human editors on staff write witty headlines and make me laugh.

Most news apps fall victim to what I call shoehorn design: let’s jam as much content into a tiny mobile screen as possible. But like a real shoehorn, the not-so-subtle message is if you need help getting your shoes on, there’s a pretty good chance you’re wearing the wrong shoes.

Flip over to Apple News and it’s a different story: not a proverbial shoehorn in sight. Check out the clear, large headlines, great image treatment, and the body copy that’s easy to read. Sure, the font size isn’t adjustable yet, but it reads well on a mobile.

So why does this detail matter? This is a classic design and customer experience dilemma. If you’re a news publisher with a native app, Apple News changes the status quo. Here we’ve got a beautiful design that makes most of the news apps I use look tired.

It’s a challenge for traditional publishers. Do you redesign your old native news app, or ditch it entirely? Most will likely suck it and see. If Apple News really takes off, which is highly likely, I suspect many of the old news apps will wither on the digital vine.

There’s also money to consider. Publishers keep 100 percent of the revenue from ads sold inside articles or a channel, while Apple takes its normal 30 percent cut if it serves up ads sold through the iAd advertising platform.

It could be a good thing, but time will tell. Which in turn is also tricky. History tells us music publishers faced the same Catch 22 when iTunes rolled around.

In fact, debate still rages about the fairness of Apple’s royalty payments. Even the amiable Taylor Swift is cranky, which tells you something.

So here we stand. Apple customers are happy swiping away and soaking up the news. Publishers, you suspect, have that nagging sense that they’re yet again stepping into another brave world. It might go well, and it might not.

Reminds me of an old saying: kingdoms are great if the king is good.

This article originally appeared at B&T’s sister site www.which-50.com

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