The Rundown: Publishers are excited by Apple News, but bound to be disappointed

As their Facebook traffic dwindles, many publishers are now looking to Apple News to help replace it. At the Digiday Publishing Summit last month, various publishers reported surges in traffic to their content on the platform.

Not so fast.

Apple has spent the past few years slowly ratcheting up its privacy rhetoric to consumers, but CEO Tim Cook reaffirmed its stance in a CNBC interview March 28. “We could make a ton of money if customers were our product. We have elected not to do that,” he said, referring to Facebook’s privacy predicament in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Publishing executives say Cook has made a similar pitch in meetings with them in recent months and intentionally distanced Apple from Facebook, Google and other intermediaries that have for years collected and stitched together information about publishers’ audiences, while passing little of the rewards to publishers themselves.

But Cook’s comments aren’t a promising sign for publishers hoping to generate ad revenue from Apple platforms.

In Apple News, for example, monetization continues to lag, despite piecemeal concessions in response to publisher requests. It’s slowly allowed publishers to test Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers ad server in Apple News, but not in a way that lets publishers wring the same value from Apple News content as they would from their own properties.

Ultimately, monetization is being hampered by limitations around targeting and tracking enforced by Apple itself that look increasingly unlikely to loosen, as privacy considerations increasingly become a competitive differentiator for its core hardware business.

Intermediaries may have spent years skimming data from publishers for their own benefit, but the reality is many publishers still rely on the same techniques. That may be changing, and a less data-reliant ad marketplace might be good for publishers in the long run, but publishers still need to keep the lights on in the interim.

As one publishing executive put it: “Monetization is awful. And they don’t really care. They are a hardware and software company. News is a rounding error.”

Given publishers’ terse relationships with both Facebook and Google in recent years, it’s easy to see why many are so optimistic about their prospects with Apple. But if you’re going to rely on a third party to provide you with an audience you hope to monetize with ads, it might be better to rely on one with interest in the ad business.

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