On Monday, Apple will announce its latest move to remold itself into a media titan: new subscription-based video and news services.
Offering a video bundle isn’t much of a stretch for a company that has been selling TV and movie downloads for more than a dozen years, but news is another thing. So is the 50 percent share that Apple, from multiple accounts, proposes to keep from subscriptions to this news service.
That share has reportedly led many news organizations, The Washington Post included, to decline Apple’s invitation. (Post spokeswoman Molly Gannon declined to comment Friday.) But others — most notably the Wall Street Journal — appear to be in.
You can’t quite blame them. Apple’s platforms have enormous scope, and the company has had plenty of time to learn from the mistakes of others.
And from its own, since this won’t be the first time Apple has put itself forth as a possible solution for journalism’s business problems.
Even before Apple’s January 2010 introduction of the iPad — with a prominent spot for the New York Times in Steve Jobs’s onstage demo — industry observers were suggesting that this tablet could help rescue journalism.
No news app better symbolized that wish than the Daily, the iPad-only, $39.99-a-year publication News Corp. launched in February 2011 amid a flurry of coverage. (At The Post, that coverage included a live blog, images from the launch event and of demos of the app, and a blog post and column by me.)
But less than two weeks later, Apple threw the Daily and other subscription-based iOS apps an anvil of a life jacket: It would require them all to use its App Store billing and let Apple keep 30 percent of subscription revenue, banning them from even pointing readers to subscription sign-ups elsewhere.
The Daily faced other usability issues — for instance, it shunned the Web — and by December 2012, News Corp. gave up on the app.
Other iPad publishers who persevered kept bumping into issues with customer-management basics, thanks to Apple keeping subscriber details to itself.
“We had iPhone and iPad apps, and both had subscribers,” Damon Kiesow, a chair in digital editing and production at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, recalled of his earlier experience working on mobile apps for the McClatchy newspaper chain. “When we wanted to move to universal apps, you couldn’t merge the subscriber lists.”
By October 2011, just eight months after the Daily launched to such fanfare, Apple was already on to its next thing: the Newsstand feature of its iOS 5. This folder gave special powers to compatible apps: They would present thumbnail images of their content, as if they were magazines on a shelf, and download new stories automatically.
But Apple first neglected Newsstand and then started taking away features: iOS 7, shipped two years later, took away those thumbnail previews, leaving new editions of Newsstand publications effectively invisible.
Newsstand publishers, however, couldn’t convert a Newsstand app to a regular one not tied to a specialized format without losing existing subscribers, couldn’t take those subscribers along to a new app or even email them about a new app, thanks to Apple keeping subscriber details to itself.
The experience wasn’t great for readers, either, partly because Apple insisted on reminding them that they were paying for Newsstand content.
“The #1 complaint I received from subscribers was that Apple emailed them every month telling them they were still subscribing!” emailed Glenn Fleishman, a freelance writer in Seattle who formerly published the Magazine. That digital publication (disclosure: I wrote one story for it) closed in December 2014 after years of declining iOS subscriptions.
Fleishman ticked off a list of changes Apple could have made but did not: letting publishers contact subscribers, greater compatibility with standard publishing formats, allowing different sign-up options, cutting its share of subscription revenue.
Newsstand saw none of those improvements. Kiesow’s two-word postmortem: “a disaster.”
After putting Newsstand out of its misery with 2015’s iOS 9, Apple replaced it with its Apple News app. This provides an elegant, streamlined view of partner sites’ stories, with helpful curation from professional editors and without the usual din of interruptions from too-pushy ads.
There’s only one problem: Publishers can’t seem to profit from it. That’s not just because Apple News doesn’t allow the noisiest sort of ads, but because it prohibits most forms of ad targeting, doesn’t do “programmatic” matching of ads with stories based on topic and other criteria in real time, and only offers limited options to backfill ad spaces that don’t get sold in advance.
“Everything’s great from a product-design perspective, but no money,” summed up Jason Kint, CEO of the online-publishing group Digital Content Next.
A 2018 report on third-party platforms for Digital Content Next also called out Apple News for lacking “data exchange to support ongoing publisher operations” — as in, publishers still don’t know their subscribers.
Apple News also hides publications from readers with the apple.news links its “Share” button generates; when users replace its suggested summaries with their own descriptions, readers on Twitter and elsewhere can only wonder where they’ll go.
Kiesow advised publishers to treat Apple News as a promotional exercise. “I’m fine with that if you put that in the marketing budget,” he said.
At least iOS app subscriptions now leave more money for publishers. In 2016, Apple lowered its take of App Store content subscriptions from 30 percent to 15 percent a year after a reader’s sign-up.
Apple’s forthcoming news service, as extortionate as it may be, does offer one standout feature: It isn’t Facebook.
The social network has been far worse than Apple in inviting publishers to try one new strategy after another — “social reader” apps such as The Post’s now-defunct product, Facebook Pages, pivoting to live video — and then either ending that experiment or changing its News Feed algorithm to leave publishers’ Facebook outreach hidden.
“Six months later, they flip a switch and chase the next thing,” Kint said. “That long-term commitment is where Apple could prove itself, and where Facebook has consistently failed.”
Or Apple’s news service could go the way of the Newsstand, and we’ll see the company try something else in another two years.