When Apple launched Newsstand in 2012 the app was just a virtual shelf that allowed users to see their online subscriptions to publications. Essentially it was a glorified organizational folder that was nice to have but it was not a core part of the device experience.
How times have changed. Apple News, the name for the rebranded Newsstand, has transformed over the past few years into a sophisticated, feature-rich content distribution platform that is well-integrated into iOS and macOS.
For publishers, the evolved Apple News presents both an opportunity and a challenge: it's beneficial to have a strong competitor to powerful networks such as Google and Facebook, but there is now the burden of having to deal with yet another distribution channel.
Figuring out how to tackle Apple News is complicated by the speed at which the service is changing and by the fact that it is fundamentally different from seemingly similar offerings.
To better understand the role Apple News can play in current and future audience development, sales, and subscriber-acquisition strategies, it helps for publishers to know these four key things about the platform:
1. It is already immensely popular
Given that there are more than 1.3 billion active Apple devices in the market and that Apple News is pre-installed on new iPhones, iPads, and Macs, it's no surprise that the app has scale.
Still, it's worth noting the impressiveness of this scale: According to Apple, the platform now has more than 90 million regular readers.
To put that number in perspective: The New York Times has 3.8 million subscribers (online and print) and Fox News averages around 2.4 million primetime television viewers. Although, these may not be like for like comparisons, there is a strong reason behind this. Apple device users, are more inclined to subscriptions (for apps & services) as compared to their Android/Windows counterparts which is reflected in the composition of apps in the respective app-stores.
This highlights that Apple News is not an emerging platform but rather one that is already hugely popular with consumers. Moreover, because of the reach of Apple and the potential to expand the offering to more markets, it's likely that the app's large user base will continue to grow rapidly for a long time to come.
2. Elements of the service are manually curated by editors
At first glance you would think that Apple News is basically the same as Google News, and to some extent this is true: the app presents pieces from a wide range of content sources, has options for users to tailor the experience, and utilizes machine learning to surface pieces.
However, there is also a huge difference between the two services. Whereas Google News is completely driven by algorithms, Apple News selects the top level of stories that visitors see using a radical (for Silicon Valley) approach: human editors.
This approach is both good and bad for publishers: on one hand it makes it more likely that sound and reliable pieces will surface. However, it also introduces the possibility that editors will pick the sources they favor (or those that do the best job of pitching).
3. Monetization opportunities are limited but set to expand
A few months ago Slate noticed a trend: it was seeing much more Apple News traffic for its stories but was not seeing a corresponding jump in revenue from Apple News.
This seems to mirror the experience of many other publishers, and it makes sense: while Apple News allows publishers to sell ads against their content and also has had a team selling inventory, the opportunities have been limited and the company does not have the sophisticated ad platforms of rivals Google and Facebook.
However, that's not likely to be the case for long: Apple has been exploring launching a robust ad network and is expanding its sales capabilities. Perhaps even more importantly, it bought Texture, a subscription-based app for content, and has been pitching publications on the new revenue-sharing opportunities that will soon be available.
4. This is just the beginning
Finally, it is important to realize that this is still just the beginning for Apple News.
Whereas content used to be a bit of an afterthought for Apple, it is now in the spotlight: the company has already spent heavily to make Apple Music a success and it now reportedly has a $1 billion war chest to fund original programming for its Apple TV business.
Apple News fits squarely in this content-focused strategy and it is likely that the app will receive increasing investment in everything from product development and marketing to content partnerships and technology acquisitions in the coming years.
Ultimately, all indicators are that Apple News is set to quickly and significantly expand its audience size, monetization opportunities, and product offerings. Given that, digital publishers who fail to engage and develop strategies for the platform could miss out on powerful opportunities.
Related reading: What Publishers need to know about Paywall Models