Apple’s premium News+ service has been a source of controversy among publishers since even before it launched last month. Apple struggled to close deals with at least some major publishers in time for the launch, and The New York Times rather vocally chose not to participate. Following the launch, the publishing industry remained strongly divided on whether Apple’s News+ platform is good for the industry as a whole.
However, now that the philosophical arguments have mostly subsided, it seems that a number of publishers are finding more pragmatic reasons to be frustrated with Apple News+ — technical struggles with the platform, a lack of promised support from Apple itself, and the feeling that the company is giving all of its attention to larger publishers at the expense of the smaller ones.
A group of publishers speaking to Digiday described several early headaches they’ve been experiencing with the platform, combined with the feeling that Apple hasn’t been living up to its end of the bargain. While some growing pains are expected for the fledgling service, multiple sources have expressed concern that if Apple doesn’t change its approach, the platform may not survive in the long-term.
The general sense among smaller publishers seems to be that Apple has overpromised and underdelivered when it comes to supporting their efforts. In wooing publications to join up with the service, Apple showed off slashy designs it had created with some magazines, suggesting that it would be providing these kinds of design resources and templates to help publishers’ content stand out in Apple News+.
According to publishers, that promise has turned out to be “only half true.” Apple has provided a small team of designers, headed up by former Wired editor Jason Tanz, to consider specific requests for design help. Publishers have been told to submit pitches to a generic email address, and sources have said that for the most part, Apple’s design team has been responsive to their outreach, but hasn’t yet done much in terms of actually providing the promised article or content templates, choosing instead to outsource that problem to third-party vendors.
They’re basically playing favorites. It always seems to be good for the big guys, but not for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, smaller publishers have expressed frustration that while their only point of contact is an opaque email address, a smaller elite group of publishers have been invited to join a private Slack channel where they can interact with Apple more directly, leaving Apple’s smaller partners exasperated and feeling like they’ve been left out in the cold.
Meanwhile, smaller publishers, who don’t have the modern media design resources and tools in-house, complain about struggles to convert pages from print issues into a digital format, using tools that scan PDFs to break out individual articles and ads, but are so unreliable and buggy that each issue needs to be copy- and design-edited all over again. The standardized tools also mean that content from smaller publishers are basically looks the same when presented in Apple News+.
This leaves smaller magazine publishers with the difficult choice of having to either invest the manpower to create their own unique designs without knowing if it’s going to pay off in readership, or live with the established and more generic templates that will leave their magazines looking like everyone else’s. Publishers do have the option of choosing to publish in PDF format, but many consider that a last resort due to fears of losing readers to the less-than-optimal experience that PDF magazines provide, especially on the smaller iPhone screen.
Publishers are also confused regarding how to handle digital sponsorships between the print and Apple News+ versions of their magazines, along with a perceived indifference from Apple about how to handle these things. It has also baffled some publishing sources that Apple — a company that prides itself for being design-conscious — would allow the “uneven user experience” of mixing attractive, custom-designed magazines from some publishers alongside those that are simply uploading PDFs of their print issues.
Of course, Apple News+ is still less than a month old, so some bumps in the road are to be expected, but it definitely seems that it’s not only the end user experience that Apple has to work out some kinks in, and it will be interesting to see where Apple ultimately goes with it, especially considering the company hasn’t had the best track record with its prior forays into digital news.