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Updated May 19, 2024, 9:34pm EDT
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As clicks dry up for news sites, could Apple’s news app be a lifeline?

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The Scoop

Like many digital publishers, The Daily Beast was struggling at the end of 2023. Facebook, long a primary driver of clicks to the publication, had turned away from news. Search traffic had become increasingly erratic, as Google adjusted its algorithm to combat a flood of AI-powered junk. The site’s paid subscription program had atrophied since Donald Trump left office.

But it had a new lifeline: Apple.

Late last year, the digital news tabloid (where I worked from 2018 to 2021 as a media reporter) entered into Apple’s partnership program, called Apple News+. The program made all of the publication’s buzziest exclusives available to paying Apple subscribers, behind Apple’s own paywall. And the impact for a mid-sized news site was immediate, putting the Beast on track to make between $3-4 million in revenue this year from Apple News alone — more than its own standalone subscription program, and without much additional cost.

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The Beast is hardly alone in its increased reliance on the iOS news aggregator. The free version of Apple News has been a source of audience attention for news publishers since it launched in 2015. But while many publishers have come to the conclusion that traffic has less business value than they once thought, they’re still desperate for revenue. Executives at companies including Condé Nast, Penske Media, Vox, Hearst, and Time all told Semafor that Apple News+ has come to represent a substantial stream of direct revenue.

A spokesperson for Time said that Apple News has become “one of our most important partners and delivers 7-figures of revenue for TIME annually,” adding that the publication garnered 5 million unique visitors from Apple News last month. The revenue and audience numbers have been similar at major Condé Nast publications, including Wired and Vanity Fair. As significant as the partnership has been for the Daily Beast, it’s been even bigger for its larger corporate sister Dotdash Meredith, which runs the portfolio of magazines purchased by Daily Beast parent company IAC in 2021.

“Apple News has been a growing traffic source for all our properties, particularly DotDash/Meredith,” IAC chair Barry Diller said in an email. “We only have a paywall at DailyBeast, not that there are enough ‘payers.’”

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Know More

The free version of Apple News is one of the biggest news platforms in the world. It’s the most widely used news application in the United States, the U.K., Canada, and Australia, and boasted over 125 million monthly users in 2020. The News+ subscription launched in 2019 after the company acquired the startup Texture, which had promised a service like a “Netflix of magazines.” That investment represented Apple’s deepening business relationship with news publishers, one that began with a high-profile announcement partnership with the Wall Street Journal (despite the Journal’s parent company’s skepticism of tech platforms).

Apple News+ charges users $12.99 a month for a bundled subscription to articles from premium magazines and newspapers, featuring constantly updating stories syndicated from major American news sites and magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the BBC, the LA Times, and hundreds of others.

Apple News+ began rapidly increasing its partnerships over the past two years, adding dozens of local and regional newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Tennessean, among others. The company licenses articles from behind publishers’ paywalls, and pays them monthly based partially on time audiences spend on each piece. Publishers also can sell advertising on their content in Apple News, as well as distribute product recommendation and reviews, keeping 100% of any affiliate link revenue they generate as a result.

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Apple declined to comment on how many people subscribe to News+.

Many publishers have taken a hands-off approach to Apple, treating the partnership as a kind of bonus.

Slate President Charlie Kammerer said he views Apple as a discovery platform for people who may not otherwise be familiar with the publication’s content, showing them clicky advice columns and longreads.

“We’re really focused on how to build loyalty with our audience both on and off platform, and it’s working well,” he said in an email. “While we continue to grow our membership business within our Slate ecosystem, we are also looking at partners like Apple News+ as a discovery—and perhaps rediscovery tool—for people to find Slate content where they are, and pay for it.’”

He added: “It’s encouraging to see that the kind of high quality, in-depth journalism that is important to Slate and our audience is working well on Apple News+. They’ve made a product that’s appealing to both readers and publishers, and it’s become a nice additional revenue stream for us.”

But for other outlets, the partnership with Apple goes much deeper and has begun driving content decisions. Through its Spotlight program the company solicits and commissions specific pieces around particular news events, such as major holidays and anniversaries. Noah Shachtman, the former editor of Rolling Stone, told Semafor that Apple also paid extra to commission art and audio segments for the magazine’s articles.

In an interview last week, CEO Neil Vogel told Semafor that Dotdash Meredith has teams at multiple publications creating content specifically and exclusively for Apple News+, which Apple then promotes.

“It’s another outlet for our brands and our content,” Vogel said. “We have a relationship with them that we think is super fair in both directions. And it’s been really positive.”

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Max’s view

At the moment, Apple News is as good a partner in Big Tech as many media companies are going to find. Almost every publisher Semafor spoke to said that Apple paid well and directed eyeballs to their longer, more ambitious work. While some of the articles surfaced by the app are algorithmic and based on user behavior, the company also employs a team of journalists — led by editor-in-chief Lauren Kern, a well-regarded former New York Magazine editor — who seem to prioritize putting quality journalism front-and-center on the app. As a reader, it’s a nice product, and in many cases a better reading experience than publishers’ own homepages and apps.

But the partnership also raises some of the questions publishers avoided during the peak social media era. It incentivizes users to subscribe to Apple News+ rather than to publications directly, likely cannibalizing some potential revenue. It’s driving editorial decisions, meaning publishers are once again changing their content strategy to placate a platform. And of course the company could wake up one day and decide, like Facebook, that it no longer really wants to be in the news business, leaving news publishers stranded.

Publishers are not naive about these risks. Asked about his feelings on Apple News+, former Washington Post editor Marty Baron pointed to a chapter in his book which described Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ advice. Baron noted that Bezos was vehemently opposed to partnering with Apple, saying the Post “wouldn’t know their names or how to contact” readers, and Apple would get 50% of the revenue earned through sales of its subscriptions, with publishers on Apple News+ “battling among themselves for the rest.”

“I don’t count those people as subscribers,” Baron recalled Bezos saying. “They are, but they are Apple subscribers. They’re not Washington Post subscribers.”

And notably absent from the app’s roster is the New York Times. The company participated in the Apple News initially when it launched, but withdrew in 2020, saying it did not “align with its strategy of building direct relationships with paying readers.”

It’s easy to see why the Times would be suspicious of Apple. Whether either company will acknowledge it or not, Apple is building an application that competes with the paper of record. Over the last several years, Apple has added narrated articles from News+ publishers, daily and mini crossword puzzles, and a new original spelling game called Quartiles. Apple News now has a daily audio briefing, Apple News Today, and a new interview series, In Conversation, which highlights work from Apple’s publishing partners. Sound familiar?

An earlier version of this story reported that the Washington Post is an Apple News+ partner. The paper participates in Apple News.

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