Apple plans to add audio versions of publisher articles to Apple News+

Apple News+ is pivoting to audio.

Over the past several months, Apple has been asking the publishers participating in its year-old premium program for permission to produce audio versions of the stories distributed there, according to sources at four different publishers that have heard the pitch.

Apple will handle production costs, and compensate publishers in the same way it compensates them for the written content available on Apple News+, two sources said; Apple metes out 50% of subscriber revenue to publishers based on how much time those subscribers spend with publishers’ content in a 30-day period.

The option of listening to stories on Apple News+ fits into a recent trend of publishers offering audio versions of their stories on their own properties, such as their websites, or within their mobile apps.

Sources at two publishers said Apple initially wanted permission to produce audio versions of whatever story they thought might be a good fit for the audience.

Those two sources said that now they will pitch pieces to Apple, partly to avoid any roadblocks relating to intellectual property: Some of the content that appears in Apple News and Apple News+ has been produced by freelance writers, and freelancer contracts typically do not allow publishers or third parties like Apple to reuse stories without consent or additional compensation.

Even with Apple handling most of the heavy lifting, several publishers regard the plans skeptically, three sources said. One said it has not seen evidence that Apple News’s audience will want to listen to audio versions of their stories. A second worried that if Apple emphasizes audio for News+, it could further skew the picture of who gets compensated: Listening to a story, after all, takes longer than reading one.

“All the publishers who were part of Texture are going to get into an arms race,” said a source at one publisher that’s heard Apple’s pitch.

There is no firm timetable for when the audio versions of stories will launch, two sources said.

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Apple declined to comment on the record.

Apple’s interest in premium audio comes at a moment when many publishers remain dissatisfied with the money they make from Apple News. Apple CEO Tim Cook declared on last month’s quarterly earnings call that Apple News boasts 125 million monthly active users, a significant increase from the 90 million announced last year. Apple has not publicly shared any information about subscriber growth for Apple News+ since it announced that it had added 200,000 subscribers 48 hours into its launch. One participating publisher told Digiday in December they generate less than $20,000 a month from Apple News+.

The source who envisioned an arms race described monetization on Apple News+ as “horrendous.” A source at a second publisher said that revenue from Apple News+ had not changed since the product launched last March, and said the only reason they remain involved is to protect against any dent to their print circulation numbers. (Publishers that submit their content to Apple News+ can have downloads of those issues counted as part of their circulation base, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, provided the content and the ads remain identical to what appears in the print edition of a magazine) In February, Bloomberg reported that Liz Schimel, who led News at Apple, had left the company after less than a year on the job.

Over the past few years, platform demand for audio content has grown considerably. SpokenLayer, which produces and distributes audio content for publishers and brands, said its clients today distribute across about 12 different platforms, where four years ago, the number was closer to one.

Google, Spotify and Amazon have all launched products in the past year designed to distribute publisher content. In some cases — Google’s audio briefing, for example — the platforms are paying the publishers directly to produce the content for their respective products.

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