Apple’s new iPhone commercial includes a little interlude that says the new phone will “change the way you read the news.” A little kid looks up as the narrator asks, “wait, do you read the news?”
“Yeah,” the kid replies in the “obviously” tone perfected by his age group.
Apple is not giving up on the news. It’s doubling down.
Apple News is the shiny, new app that publishers are flocking to, but it’s hardly Apple’s first attempt at embracing digital publishing.
In fact, the introduction of Apple News is the death knell for the company’s other media app — Apple Newsstand. Its failure and eventual replacement stands as a stark warning for publishers but especially Apple, which has done from dipping a toe in the media pool to wading neck deep.
The app launched with plenty of fanfare and initial optimism, but as the reality of a middling product and an untenable business model hit, Apple left Newsstand to die.
“They put effort in originally… They said, ‘this is important to us,” said Glenn Fleishman, a columnist for Macworld that previously ran The Magazine, a publication that was created especially for Newsstand. “Then when it didn’t really work, well, they didn’t put a lot of time in to make it right.”
Newsstand is now dead, but its legacy exists as a reminder that even one of the more forward-thinking tech companies once tried to cram old media onto new screens, thinking everyone would buy it. That didn’t work.
A solid beginning
Apple released Newsstand in October 2011 when the company launched iOS 5. The app was included with the update and couldn’t be deleted, giving publishers ample reason to jump on board.
Timing was everything. Apple launched Newsstand to give newspapers and magazines a a place on the homescreen of millions of people. The company took a 30% cut of subscriptions purchased through the app.
In return, publishers wouldn’t have to change anything. Magazines would still weekly or monthly, on whatever schedule they had for decades. Newspapers could still put out yesterday’s news. Most publishers had not yet gotten used to the fast-twitch nature of the web, and on Newsstand, they could still avoid it. Crude but often expensive apps bloomed on there. Publishers could avoid declining ad sales and subscription numbers.
Then Facebook changed the shape of online journalism by pushing tsunamis of traffic to stories that appeared in status updates.
And suddenly, that 30% started to look steep. Fleishman pointed to this as a major issue for publishers, which had trouble giving up that much of their subscription income.
“If you have an existing product, you’re the New York Times, can you afford to give away 30% of your subscription price forever? No,” he said.
Newsstand worked, at least at first. Stories flourished about how the top 100 magazine titles brought in a total of $70,000 per day. Conde Nast subscriptions spiked more than 250% after the app launched, with other publications seeing similar increases. Newsstand looked like it might have figured out how to make the old magazine business model viable in the digital age.
But it didn’t take long for grumbling. Reviews noted that finding magazines was a pain, and that the reading experience was “on par with reading a PDF of the magazine,” wrote Mark Crump on Gigaom.
John Gruber, an influential Apple scribe, said that he had been reading the New York Times less since it was moved into Newsstand.
“For me, Newsstand is a place where apps go to be forgotten,” he wrote.
A quiet fall
When Apple released iOS7 in September 2013, it marked a major shift for the company’s mobile design, particularly the move to flat design.
It also meant that Newsstand was dead in the water.
Fleishman had already read the writing on the wall.
“In iOS6, there really wasn’t much direction after the initial period, and I think they got focused on other things,” Fleishman said. “They probably discovered early on it wasn’t a great direction.”
The nail in the coffin came with the iOS7 update in the form of a change to how readers saw that publications had been updated. The new app icon made it impossible to know when publications had been updated.
The change sparked almost immediate push back.
“The end result is so horrible that it’s hard to avoid thinking it was done maliciously: if someone was tasked with hiding away a set of unwanted apps, they would be likely to come back with a design that was something very much like the iOS 7 Newsstand,” wrote Marko Karppinen, CEO of digital magazine company Richie, not long after the update.
By fall of 2014, three years after its introduction, Newsstand was receiving public criticism from publishers.
The new News
If Newsstand is to serve any higher purpose, it may be to help Apple create a good digital media platform in its News app.
News launches with some of the same joy as Newsstand, having already signed up more than 50 publishing partners. Mashable is among the publication that will have content appear in the service.
But if Apple seemed like it had a big head start with Newsstand, it’s playing from behind with News. Apple will now be competing with a variety of other companies that are featuring and curating news including Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
There’s reason to be optimistic, Fleishman said. He noted that it seemed Apple had learned from its past mistakes, allowing publishers to keep 100% of the revenue on ads that media companies sell, while taking a 30% cut of ads that publisher feature through Apple’s iAd.
News will also not require media companies to invest in expensive apps, instead offering a simple template that can be further specialized. Putting media on News can be as simple as plugging in an RSS feed.
Despite his frustration with how Newsstand was handled, Fleishman said he does see News as a good opportunity for media companies.
“If I were running a publication right now, I would absolutely want a strategy to get in there,” he said.