Nordic publishing giant Schibsted is the latest publisher to back Spotify’s allegations that Apple is abusing its stance as the most dominant player in the app market.
Schibsted has claimed that from the perspective of protecting free journalism, Apple represents as big a threat as Facebook and Google. As ad-funded media businesses have suffered while digital ad revenues have flowed to the duopoly, so subscription publishers are increasingly feeling the pinch as Apple takes a hefty cut of revenue and restricts data-sharing with them.
In Sweden, the iPhone has a market share of 48% and a large number of Schibsted readers use Apple products to access news, according to an open letter, signed by Anna Careborg and Lena K. Samuelsson, publishers at Schibsted titles Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet, respectively. They claim that the result, as is common in publisher and platform tussles, is that Apple has some control of the relationship between publishers and their readers.
“Unfortunately, we have seen more and more signs that this position is being abused,” the letter reads. “Apple is acting today as a whimsical feudal lord who either doesn’t understand — or simply doesn’t care — what its actions are impacting.”
The letter states three common complaints that publishers have had with Apple, including the platform’s move to take a 15-30% cut of digital content revenues for any subscriptions sold through the app. Apple also retains the customer data for these sign-ups, so publishers can’t tailor services or target readers. Publishers are also frustrated when new app functionalities that are first approved by Apple are later rejected for no reason.
Apple has not responded to a request for comment. The platform published a response to Spotify’s claims on its site in March. According to Schibsted, Apple’s main response to Spotify, that the music-streaming service earned a lot from joining the app store, doesn’t apply to Schibsted, which built a digital readership independent of Apple.
Schibsted is no stranger to flexing its muscle with U.S. tech platforms. Naturally, there’s a difference between publishers grousing over platforms’ freeloading of their content without recompense and allegations of monopolistic behavior.
Tech platforms are not required to manage the interests of publisher business models. According to a publisher source, Apple’s actions, like holding customer data back from publishers, can be understood as acting in the platform’s own benefit. But eventually, this has become detrimental to the wider growth of the ecosystem, according to this publishing executive. To rebuild trust with publishers Apple could start by justifying why it believes a 30% cut is reasonable.
In March, when Spotify filed its EU competition claim against Apple, trade body the European Publishers Council, which includes members such as Axel Springer, Bonnier, News UK and Thomson Reuters, also came out in support of Spotify. However, it’s unclear whether this support of an ongoing court case has any teeth. According to Ian Whittaker, head of European media research at Liberum Capital Limited, more publishers pulling content off platforms entirely, as The Guardian did on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News, would have more interesting implications for tech platforms.
Apple has had its ups and downs in terms of publisher relationships. Ultimately, it depends on the business model as to whether the platform suits the publisher: Media companies don’t work with platform if the terms don’t suit them.
Spotify’s and Schibsted’s claims have been directed at the App Store and Apple News, rather than Apple News+, launched last month and not yet available outside the U.S. Although, Apple News+ is a new product, and as such publishers are experiencing teething problems.
Apple’s relative lack of reliance on advertising revenue and firm stance on data privacy may have made it seem less of a threat to publisher digital ad revenues than Facebook and Google. Even so, there’s a case for ad-funded publishers on Apple News, according to Owen Wyatt, managing director at The Stylist Group.
“We’re making a microscopic amount of revenue on Apple News compared to our own site, and for now, that’s fine,” he said. Stylist receives Apple News monthly pageviews in the millions, which translate into annual revenue in the tens of thousands, according to the publisher. “I respect its concerns over privacy and data; it’s refreshing. Apple has made Stylist a huge mobile brand, and audience to our own site have followed.”