Last year, Apple News brimmed with promise for publishers, offering an engaged, high-quality audience that seemed to do nothing but grow. Ad revenue wasn’t great, but at the start of 2018, most publishers assumed that would come around.

One year later, most publishers are still waiting. Monetization on Apple News remains a slog, according to seven publishers interviewed by Digiday. Ad revenue is bogged down by advertisers’ disinterest in the ad inventory that publishers are selling directly, and by remnant ad fill rates that many publishers describe as abysmal, even after a modest improvement to start the year, sources said. One source said their publication earned “low five-figures” every month from Apple News; another said they earned less than $1,000 per month.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Today, publishers are still having trouble selling their Apple News inventory directly, sources said. Three cited Apple News’s limited user targeting, which doesn’t allow the use of third-party data or IP addresses, as reasons for them being unable to sell a meaningful amount of ads on Apple News. A fourth source cited Apple News’s incompatibility with the publisher’s current sales strategy, which relies heavily on programmatic advertising, which Apple News prohibits, as a reason for seeing minimal ad revenue from the platform.

Two publishing sources said the best bet for selling Apple News inventory today is to throw it in as a value-add within larger campaigns. “We’ve been able to position it as a premium, in-app audience, which is attractive to some advertisers,” one source said. “There are drawbacks around targeting though.”

With few opportunities to sell the inventory directly, most publishers are at the mercy of the NBCUniversal sales team, which began selling Apple News’s remnant ad inventory in the second half of 2017. Those ads fetch a CPM of between $3 and $4, a reasonable rate for remnant inventory, multiple sources said.

The problem, those sources added, was that little of their leftover ad inventory was being filled.

One publisher source said that until the beginning of 2019, the fill rate on their remnant Apple News inventory was less than 20 percent. This source said it was such an “atrociously low” number that it made publishing on Apple News less lucrative than publishing through Google’s AMP format or even Facebook Instant Articles, which many publishers abandoned because of its monetization issues.

A second publisher, which saw fill rates of around 15 percent throughout 2018, has noticed a bit of an uptick in 2019 too, with fill rates climbing to between 20 and 25 percent. This source said that increase was encouraging, but stressed that the fill rate remains “abysmal” on the whole.

In the past, publishers including Scripps have boasted fill rates of up to 90 percent in a test of Apple News’s implementation of DoubleClick, but these sources suggest that those results are far from typical.

Apple News has “roughly 90 million” regular users, according to The New York Times; a source familiar with the matter told Digiday that the service has nearly 70 million monthly unique users, and another 20 million international users.

Over the past 12 months, the amount of referral traffic that Apple News directs back to sites in Parsely’s network, which comes from readers clicking on links to stories they read inside Apple News, has remained relatively flat, hovering between 4 million and 6 million views every week.

But publishers contacted for this story all reported seeing steady growth in audience over the past year. For three sources, Apple News now drives more referral traffic than Facebook does. Getting featured in the product’s human-curated Top News widget inside Apple News can drive enormous boosts in traffic, sources said. Getting articles into Apple News’s content recirculation widget, which recommends stories for users to read next, can make a story one of the highest-read stories a publisher can share in a month, one source said.

And while publishers remain frustrated with Apple News as a source of revenue, some said they appreciate where Apple is coming from. “I respect Apple and that they believe in privacy,” one source said. “It just makes it incredibly challenging to sell there.”

Most said they appreciate the work done by the product’s editorial team, which several described as open-minded and open to ideas for packages and what kinds of coverage to spotlight. “They’re very fair,” one publisher source said. “They’ll respond when they feel like it, but they’re always asking for pitches.”

But without much prospect for directly monetizing their Apple News audiences inside Apple, some publishers remain unsure about what the best approach to that audience is.

“It’s a meaningful number,” one publisher source said of their audience on Apple News. “But it’s like, what are we doing with it?”

Some have turned to subscriptions. One source at a publisher that distributes content through Apple News described the subscriptions they were able to drive there as a “pleasant surprise,” while cautioning that Apple’s 30 percent cut and ownership of the customer remained major issues. “It’s not going to bring in the kind of revenue we’d see if we were selling all the ad inventory, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the revenue from subscriptions,” that source said. “There are all kinds of issues with it, but it’s better than nothing.”

That lack of overall progress in monetization has dulled the excitement many publishers once felt about Apple News. A survey Digiday conducted among publishers in Feb. 2018 found that nearly 30 percent of respondents said publishers should prioritize Apple News in the new year, beating out Twitter and Facebook and referral platforms such as Flipboard.

Publishers are also starting to think about deriving value from Apple News in other ways that are not directly tied to monetization. One source at a publisher said the company was hoping to find ways to use Apple News to drive podcast downloads. Another was hoping it would be able to figure out a way to drive more people to hit a paywall on their owned sites. A third said it is planning to work harder at converting its Apple News readers into newsletter subscribers.

Those new approaches have less to do with real optimism and more to do with making the best of an underwhelming situation. “Once you’re in something, it becomes difficult to back out,” one source said.

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