A first look at Apple News+ by an avid print reader
Yesterday, Apple announced News+, a monthly subscription service that gives readers access to content from 300 magazines and newspapers (US and Canada only at the moment).
This isn't a new idea, nor is it Apple's first attempt at bringing magazines en masse to iOS, but it represents a valid next step in digital publishing.
News+ is a viable attempt to represent printed periodical content on a digital platform.
What is News+?
News+ is a new paid section of Apple's existing News app. The app launched in 2015 and collates and curates (a team of editors oversees what gets surfaced to users) a personalised news stream for each reader (the app learns what you like and shows more content you will like). It works and syncs across Apple's ecosystem, on iPhone, iPad and Mac. 5 million articles are read via the News app every month.
I'm not an Apple News user, but nor do I read the news much. My time reading is spent mostly on print magazines, and a little on sport and football news online. However, I can see how News has become so popular.
Yesterday, Apple expanded the News app to include magazines through their new paid service, News+
Apple have tried something this before. And it failed.
After the iPad launched back in 2010, Apple tried hard to bring print-only material to their digital platform. It was a natural progression for the medium; news had been online for a long time but the iPad was a new vehicle that more closely resembled a magazine in size and format.
The years following saw publishers try out digital versions of their magazines, and the “print is dead” rhetoric came to the fore. The iPad and the technology around it became a fresh threat to printed news and content, and the excitement of a new device convinced a lot of people that magazines would soon cease to exist. Of course, we've seen a good number of large printed titles disappear, change format or upend business models in the decade since the iPad launch, but print never died (and, honestly, I don't think it ever will).
Apple's Newsstand app launched in 2011 and was seen at the time as a potential slayer of printed magazines because it appeared to be a viable, convenient way to read magazine content. Publishers uploaded their magazine apps to the Newsstand store and Apple served them to its readers within a dedicated Newsstand folder (complete with a faux wooden shelf).
Ultimately, Newsstand was an unsuccessful move by Apple: either the tech didn't help readers discover or enjoy reading magazines any more than print, or people weren't interested in reading magazines digitally. The app was replaced by the News app in 2015.
“[Newsstand] remains a key miscalculation on Apple’s part as a tool for publishers.”
The News app, however, was not a direct replacement for Newsstand, and was met with optimism and good reviews. It curated content from online sources, creating your own personalised "magazine", rather than emulating or replicating magazines digitally.
Apple's new attempt
It's now four years later and Apple is giving magazines another go. Introduced by Wyatt Mitchell (and his jumpsuit), former creative director of The New Yorker (and previously of WIRED, O magazine and Esquire), Apple News+ brings magazines back to iOS. For a monthly fee of just $9.99, you can get unlimited access to 300 titles (remember, US and Canada only for now).
You probably won't be shocked to hear some of the names included at launch: National Geographic, Vogue, WIRED, The New Yorker, Food & Wine, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair. These titles have all had content available on iOS for years.
With a low price, offline reading (“Current issues of your favorite magazines are automatically downloaded”) and family sharing (“Access for up to six family members”), News+ tries to be as accessible and enticing as possible.
But it also works well and looks nice: the magazines are represented beautifully in the app, with designs controlled by the publishers. The app enables moving (“live”) covers and responsive layouts which work perfectly across device sizes (much like the modern web). Subscribers to News+ get access to 300 titles to browse without limits for under $10. That's a deal that can't be beaten.
This is definitely the best digital version of print magazines that we've ever had.
But, as a print fan, this just isn't how or why I read magazines. I like the physicality, I like holding words. I like how design and words play with (varying types of) paper. News+ brings far more content to my device for a tiny fraction of the regular cost... but on a hard, cold screen.
As we find on any digital platform, content will get diluted and have no presence. You'll end up with articles within a magazine within an app alongside many other apps and notifications, within a device (in printed form, it's just an “article in a magazine”). Converted to digital, a long, well-research, hard-hitting feature ends up the same with presence or gravitas as a tweet. Print is totally different.
The best digital magazine experience
Saying that, News+ sees a progression in the way content is displayed to and navigated by the user.
“Design plays such a big part of magazines, we really wanted to give the titles their ability to express their own unique look and feel through design, typography and photography.”
— Wyatt Mitchell during the Apple keynote
As I've already mentioned, publishers have the ability to style their articles to match their print versions. This allows publishers to bring over their magazine's aesthetic to make their articles and as familiar as possible. For the reader, this also creates the same experience digitally as you would get if you flicked through different magazines at a newsstand or at your doctor's office. This is Apple trying to make News+ as magazine-y as possible.
During the keynote presentation of magazines in the News+ app, I noticed some similarities with Wired's iOS app: the animated covers, features being displayed very similarly to their magazine counterparts (even on a small iPhone screen) and how a user swipes right and left to go between an issue's articles.
In November 2016, it was reported that “Billy Sorrentino, Wired magazine's Head of Creative, [..] announced he will depart the publication to take on an undisclosed role at the Cupertino tech giant.” Alongside Sorrentino and the aforementioned Mitchell, David Moretti (previously of Wired and Wired Italia) and Alex Grossman (Condé Nast) also hold design positions at Apple. These hires have all happened in the past few years and reveal—even though this is just a small sample of the design team—Apple's intent to release content on a quality, well-designed editorial platform.
Apple has clearly worked hard at creating a new digital magazine experience. News+ does a much better job than PDFs (pinch and zoom, anyone?) and its Newsstand app (hugely varying experiences due to each magazine being its own app) in multiple ways.
News+ provides a standardised publishing platform for its partner publishers but with the tools to create features that mimic their print counterparts, and thus retaining a magazine's feel and personality. Importantly, these features retain their design both when viewing from within a magazine's issue and as standalone features when promoted by Apple within the app.
For 2019, it doesn't get better than this. Only time can tell us if this step forward in reading and user experience will convert people to reading magazines digitally. (The platform makes more sense economically for both Apple and publishers the more readers it has)
It's worth mentioning Readbug, an app that existed between 2015 and 2016 that offered an app full of independent magazines. Called the “Spotify” or “Netflix” of indie magazines, it offered both a platform for indie publishers to get their magazines onto iOS and reach new readers, and a new ecosystem for readers of these magazines.
“We handpick the magazines that are featured on our app so users discover great new titles and can share articles digitally. The content is fully optimised and responsive to your screen and the library of magazines is growing daily. We also feature an Article Stream that adapts to your personal tastes, pushing you the content we think you'd like the most.”
If it sounds just like an indie mag version of News+, that's because there are some big similarities: Readbug also offered natively-designed features (rather than simply uploading PDFs), unlimited reading, offline reading, back issues, and a range of titles for a monthly fee (£9.99). Back then, it was really exciting seeing indie mags being represented in this way, but like so many digital reproductions of magazines, the platform couldn't prove popular enough and Readbug closed. (I'm looking to publish a larger piece on Readbug soon).
The News+ economics
This is where I struggle the most with the idea of News+: the pricing.
I read a lot of print but I can see how someone who picks up two magazines a month from the grocery store could be persuaded to try News+ (unlimited reading of 300 titles for $9.99 a month). It's so convenient and represents amazing value. I can also see how existing digital readers or subscribers of any of the included titles would be tempted to switch to News+ based on a price vs. content basis (a digital sub to WIRED costs $10 a year, for comparison). For the reader, it's kind of a no-brainer.
For the publishers, not so much. I don't understand how publishers are justifying the economics of this service. Readers pay $9.99 for unlimited access to the full catalogue of titles; that means access to 300 latest issues but apparently all back issues as well. Apple also reportedly takes 50% of the revenue, leaving the other 50% to be shared between the publishers, with more-read titles receiving a higher cut.
I'm definitely no expert, but I can't see how publishers will make any sort of decent revenue from News+. At an absolute maximum of $4.98 per reader per month, spread across multiple titles (and even less for people taking advantage of the family sharing option), how does this make sense for publishers?
News+ is set up so that publishers make more money the more readers they get. For this, they're going to have to rely on Apple bringing in brand new readers. Publishers won't want their existing subscribers or readers to convert to News+ because they are infinitely more valuable. News+ will have to scale massively in order to keep publishers happy.
Surely some readers—especially those who read multiple titles offered by Apple—will prefer the convenience of reading everything across their iOS devices. Plus, I would predict that a regular (aka non-print fan) News+ reader is probably unlikely to move “back” to buying a single print copy for $4.99, which could seriously hurt future sales. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I'm struggling to see how Apple enticed this many magazines to News+.
I like print
I buy magazines because they are magazines.
Print is a medium that I really enjoy and, for me, digital doesn’t have the same allure. I have never wanted to sit down with my iPad and browse through a magazine. Yet, give me a pile of paper and I'm happy. Maybe I’ve just been spoilt with print, a refined content platform that humans have perfected over a long period. The shear amount of amazing print-only titles only boosts my love for the medium.
As for digital, I don't feel like we've yet hit a finished or perfect product and we—Apple included—are still figuring out what works best when it comes to taking magazines into the digital sphere. Regardless of how you package and price magazine content, I believe people will always fall back to their favoured medium. For many, digital doesn’t (yet) beat print for reading experience and content exploration and enjoyment.
The deciding factor for News+ to succeed (where Newsstand and many other attempts at digitising periodicals failed) is the people. Do we want to read magazine in this format?
A future for News+
News+ is an exciting and modern new toy for the publishing industry and its readers. When News+ reaches the UK App Store, I'm definitely going to check it out. I may hate it, I may love it, but I also might find that News+ works great as a secondary media channel that supplements my indie print habits. I have no doubt that the service will be used by many (especially those already using the News app and existing digital readers of the included magazines).
News+ has a much better chance at succeeding than anything before it. There are more iOS devices and users, we live in a more digital world, there are millions of younger digital-native people who won't have print experience to compare it to, and News+ has a better and more magazine-y design style and more native experience. These all add up to a package that, digitally, can't be beaten.
But print is print and digital is digital. I'm a print guy; no amount of technology will ever—in my humble opinion—beat the magic of the printed word.
I'm excited to see how this all plays out.
I'll leave you with this quote about Newsstand:
“One of the more forward-thinking tech companies once tried to cram old media onto new screens, thinking everyone would buy it. That didn't work.”