‘Basically playing favorites’: Apple News+ gets off to a rocky start for some publishers

According to several publishers, Apple News+ is off to a rough start.

Five participating publishers Digiday spoke to detailed a series of early headaches, including struggles with Apple News+ article formatting, confusion about user experience and design, worries about jeopardizing big digital ad campaigns, and a gripe that Apple is favoring large publishers at the expense of smaller ones.

Early hiccups are to be expected — Apple News+ is less than a month old — but multiple publishing sources said the product’s flaws do not bode well for its long-term future unless Apple adapts its approach. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

In pitches it made to publications, which included splashy treatments of designs it created with magazines such as the soccer title Eight By Eight, Apple reps made it seem as though Apple would be providing design resources and article templates that would make publishers’ content inside Apple News+ stand out, sources at three different publishers said.

“They basically said, ‘We will help you out by providing templates,’” said a source at one publication currently participating in Apple News+.

So far, that has proved only half true. A small team of Apple designers, led by former Wired editor Jason Tanz, fields pitches from participating publishers hoping for design help on specific articles or packages, sources said. All participating publishers were given an email address where they were encouraged to send pitches, and sources said that by and large, Apple’s representatives were responsive to their outreach.

But a smaller, select group of publishers were invited to join a private Slack channel where they could connect with Apple more directly, a move that exasperated several sources when they were informed of the channel’s existence. “They’re basically playing favorites,” that first source said. “It always seems to be good for the big guys, but not for the rest of us.”

Apple has also refrained from actually providing article or content templates to publishers. While it has worked directly with publishers that decided to build their own templates for Apple News+, it has largely outsourced that the problem of article templates to several vendors, each of which leaves something to be desired, participating publisher sources say.

Added work tops the list of several publishers’ complaints. Most of the publishers that want to convert pages from their print issues into a digital format rely on tools which scan PDFs, then converts their contents into individual articles and advertisements. The technology is buggy enough that each issue needs to effectively be copy- and design-edited all over again, to ensure that design, formatting and spacing have come out in one piece, according to multiple sources. And because they are standardized, these tools make it harder to distinguish one publisher’s content from another, sources said.

Smaller magazine publishers that don’t have the resources to design their own templates spare are stuck considering an unfavorable set of choices: Invest precious design and development manpower to create something beautiful without knowing if there is an audience to appreciate it; use an established template, which makes your content look exactly like that of dozens of other publishers; or wait things out with a PDF, and hope that having a different user experience doesn’t cost you readers.

There are also logistical puzzles to think through. For publishers that sell separate digital sponsorships around packages that appear in the print editions of their magazines, there is confusion – and indifference from Apple – about whether the Apple News+ launch could potentially cannibalize the digital audience for that package, one source said.

In addition, some publishing sources say, there is frustration with Apple News+’s uneven user experience, with some publications splurging on custom design, and others simply uploading PDFs of their print issues. “You think of Apple, and they’re so design-conscious,” a second source said. “This doesn’t feel like that at all.”

Navigation issues compound the problem. For example, the Apple News+ packages being created by digital natives such as Vox Media or theSkimm are not available as magazine issues inside the Apple News+ tab. They are only accessible through tabs displayed on those publications’ Apple News pages.

While that exception may be the source of some short-term confusion, some publishing sources speculated that Apple thinks individual stories, highlighted for Apple News users in their feeds, will do more to convert subscribers than whole magazine issues will.

“The future [of Apple News+] is less about magazines in general than it is about premium brands aggregating their paid content in one place,” said Paul Canetti, the founder of Maz, a digital content distributor that works with Apple News+.


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