Yesterday was a pretty big day for our technological overlord. No, I’m not talking about Google.
During the “Show Time” event held at the Steve Jobs Theater on Monday morning, March 25, Apple CEO Tim Cook was visibly excited as he announced four separate services, most of which had been rumored over the past months. Among them: a credit card, a game subscription service, a premium news service, and a streaming video service.
Look out, Netflix and AmEx. Apple is coming for all our money.
Joking aside, I wanted to focus on the news subscription service—largely because it’s the only one of the four services made immediately available to the public—and give my initial thoughts on what could be described as the Netflix of magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
What is Apple News+?
Much like the long-rumored Apple TV+, we knew that the premium news service was coming. In fact, rumors that Apple was creating a one-stop digital shop for your favorite print publications had been circulating since at least early 2018.
Now that it’s finally here, what is News+ all about?
The “Netflix of news” isn’t just hyperbole. It’s actually an apt description for the service, which offers a collection of over 300 different titles, spanning everything from entertainment to business to health and beyond, all of which are available on-demand for your reading pleasure.
And it’s not just new issues of these publications; you’ll often find a pretty sizable backlog of issues available. While perusing the service, I found issues of Bon Appétit extending as far back as March 2018 and The Hollywood Reporter extending back to the April 25, 2018 issue.
(On a side note, I wonder if maybe Apple hadn’t intended to release News+ sooner. Otherwise, it’s a pretty big coincidence that there are almost exactly 12 months of back issues for many of these publications.)
In theory (and in practice), it’s an enticingly simple idea, taking the News app that was already a free source for news on “a billion iPhones,” according to Oprah, and adding a paid subscription that provides access to many of our favorite premium publications. In other words, you can stop paying for annual magazine and newspaper subscriptions because there’s a good chance that the title or titles you enjoy are on News+.
Entertainment Weekly? You’ve got it. HGTV Magazine? That’s here, too. Architectural Digest? Yep. Even obscure titles (CBS Soaps In Depth, anyone?) are in the News+ library. It’s sure to appeal to however many people are still reading magazines and newspapers. (I’ll come back to that in a minute.)
Here’s how it works: For $9.99 per month, or roughly the amount you’d pay to buy two magazines from your local newsstand, you and up to six of your family members get access to a massive library (and backlog) of many of the most popular publications, which, in addition to those I’ve mentioned, includes The New Yorker, National Geographic, Time Magazine, Men’s Health, Forbes, Billboard, Vanity Fair, Inc. Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. These titles span business, technology, food, and there are even magazines for youngsters, like Cricket and Ladybug.
Before I continue, I feel like I need to commend Apple for their subscription model. With many of the monthly subscription services we already use, if you want to add other users to your account, you need a more expensive plan, like with Spotify. If you’re a single person, Spotify Premium costs $9.99 a month, but to add your family, you have to pay $14.99 per month for the family plan (although to be fair to Spotify, even for two people, that’s less expensive than paying for multiple $9.99 subscriptions).
That’s not the case with News+. Whether you’re a bachelor (or bachelorette) or whether you have a magazine-loving spouse and kids, the monthly cost for News+ is $9.99, no matter what. I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the ever-increasing prices Apple has been attaching to its hardware, so I feel like it’s only fair to give credit where credit’s due.
In light of all the data misuse we’ve seen, it’s no surprise that Apple maintained its emphasis on privacy with News+.
Interestingly, one of the prevailing themes throughout yesterday’s presentation was Apple’s emphasis on privacy, even with the News+ service. But in light of all the data misuse we see on a regular basis — like this and this and this — it probably isn’t much of a surprise.
One of the selling features of News+ is personalized recommendations. For what it’s worth, News+ recommendations and content curation happen on your device. If you’re not concerned about privacy and security, this might not sound like a big deal, but for those who do care about those things, it basically means Apple can’t collect your reading habits, meaning there’s no data getting stored on Apple’s servers or sold to third parties. Apple will never know what you’re reading because News+ personalization is entirely localized.
Even if you’re skeptical, News+ is at least worth trying out, especially since Apple gives you a free one-month trial. So if, for instance, you’re an avid reader of Popular Woodworking and want to make sure you’re getting bang for your buck, use the free trial to see if Apple News+ is a good fit for you.
Is Apple News+ Too Late?
You’ve got to commend Apple for coming up with a really interesting idea, one that could potentially be a game-changer for traditional media. With all the Disney Pluses and CBS All Accesses popping up left and right, it’s almost surprising that subscription services for news just didn’t exist before now. While Apple has recently been criticized for being late to the game with certain features that competitors have long since implemented in their products, News+ is a situation much like the original iPhone in 2008, where Apple is actually blazing a new trail.
On the other hand, a premium news service that requires a monthly subscription could be a tough sell. These days, most people get their news for free. Even magazines sold on newsstands often maintain websites where you can read many of their stories without having to buy physical copies; The Hollywood Reporter is a prime example.
Much has been made of the fact that millennials— who are slated to become the largest living generation this year—have rejected traditional media in favor of digital. Some have even suggested that magazines and newspapers are on the verge of obsolescence and extinction.
As a recent Washington Post article pointed out, at its peak in 1994, weekday print circulation was 60 million. Since then, circulation has since shrunk to 35 million, which is a decrease of nearly half. Plus, that figure actually accounts for both print and digital, meaning only a portion of that 35 million is actual, physical, printed material.
At the same time, most people have become accustomed to getting their news and entertainment on the web for free, as I said before. So in this context, News+ starts to seem like an idea that’s too little, too late. Because if people are getting their news for free, what’s the incentive to pay for News+?
As I started to actually use News+, the answer to that question became apparent, and a new question took its place.
Can Apple News+ save printed media?
The Apple News+ Experience
Though often associated with hardware — iMacs, iPhones, iPods, MacBooks, AirPods, etc. — Apple excels at software. Take a look at the most recent iteration of iOS: From something that really wasn’t much to look at in the beginning, iOS has become polished, intuitive, and — dare I say it? — even elegant. From the overall UI to the simplest elements, like the rubber-banding effect seen when scrolling, there’s careful design and painstaking optimization behind it.
That attention to detail is readily apparent with News+. As demonstrated at the event (which you can watch here — News+ was the first part of the presentation), the thing that makes News+ most compelling service is how it revitalizes the experience of reading.
Using News+ is incredibly intuitive and interactive. There aren’t overdone animations making the app slow and frustrating to use; instead, transitional animations exist only to help you work your way through a magazine, an article, or media.
Now that I’ve used News+ for a full day, I can attest to how it brings magazines to life in a way that could never have been possible with printed media. It’s more immersive and engaging, and I find myself searching for more things to read so I can extend each reading session.
With News+, Tim Cook et al. have combined a mundane task and, by most accounts, dying medium, turning them into something that’s completely, unabashedly “Apple.” Now reading magazines is fun again, and it makes me want to spend more time reading.
That brings me back to what I’d mentioned before, but News+ only seems like a service that’s come too late until you actually use it. If it was made differently or made by a different company, I would probably look at it as an ill-fated service designed to make some quick cash from a fading medium, but any hint of that impression faded from almost the moment I started using it. In reality, News+ feels more like the future than the past.
If we look at the advent of digital as a sort of modern-day natural selection that has put printed media on the cusp of extinction, it’s almost like News+ is the mutation that will ensure the propagation of the species. In other words, Apple’s premium news subscription service gives printed media a way to survive and pass rich stories down to the next generation.
As you can see, I’m quite pleased with my News+ experience so far. But to be fair, I do have a couple concerns, which I’ll quickly layout here.
My main question with News+ is whether publications will make enough from the subscription cost for them to continue offering their content on the platform for pennies on the dollar. In fact, there have been reports of Apple having issues with potential partners because, presumably, each publication will make much less from shares of News+ subscriptions than by selling copies of a magazine for five or six dollars a pop.
From what I’ve seen, my understanding is that Apple is paying publishers similar to how Medium divvies users’ subscriptions between the authors of articles that users “clap” for. More specifically, Apple will take half of the monthly fee off the top, and then the remaining half gets divided between the publishers that a user reads with the earnings being proportional to the amount of time the user spends reading each publisher’s content.
Although publications will earn less per reader from Apple than when readers subscribe directly, they’ll still have those direct subscribers that will surely make up most of their earnings.
But what if News+ becomes the de facto source for magazines and newspapers? Surely, publishers would see their direct subscribers jumping ship to News+ since they can get a lot more for their money. So not only would they be getting a pretty bad deal from News+, but Apple’s premium news subscription service could potentially cost publications their direct subscribers, too.
My fear is that the buffet model for a premium news subscription service is unsustainable, similar to how MoviePass was just too good to be true.
Another potential concern I have is that News+ is basically meant for iPhones and iPads. Right now, it isn’t available for Android devices, and while there’s a version available for macOS, it isn’t nearly as impressive as its iOS counterpart. So not only do you have a service that’s kind of niche, but this could be a situation where the target audience for News+ is just too narrow, targeting only iPhone-owning magazine readers and basically nobody else.
But it’ll take some time to get definitive answers to these questions. In the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying my free News+ trial.
And who knows? I might even keep it.
If you (1) own an iPhone, (2) aren’t put off by subscription services, and (3) have traditionally enjoyed reading magazines and newspapers, maybe Apple News+ is for you. Visit Apple’s website or open the News app on your iPhone to start your own free trial today.