Opinion: How Apple News can improve so it doesn’t fail like Newsstand

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I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been rooting for iOS 9’s upcoming Apple News app to succeed. I’ve been a dedicated Reeder user since it debuted in the App Store, quickly dumped alternatives such as Flipboard and Pulse, and don’t need to change my daily news reading routine. But ever since Apple launched Newsstand in 2011, I’ve been waiting for a truly next-generation iOS news reading experience. Apple hasn’t just missed the boat on this; it actually sank the ship it launched, and lost a lot of talented sailors to rival companies that were developing digital book and magazine apps.

Having paid for Newsstand digital magazine subscriptions, I (like many people) was beyond disappointed when Apple abandoned Newsstand and the publishers who supported it. Newsstand was a great first step, and had the potential to become much better. Today, it seems obvious that Apple was hoping to coax Newsstand publishers over to its new app Apple News, but after testing iOS 9, I don’t think News is ready to replace Newsstand. Moreover, unless something major changes over the next few months, I’d be very surprised to see News succeed where Newsstand failed.

Whether it’s Apple or someone else (say, Amazon’s Kindle division), I’d like to see a bold company take the next big step and unify published content — at least traditional newspapers and magazines, and probably also traditional books and Internet-based publications — into a single Reading app with the best features of News, Newsstand, and iBooks. Below, I’ll explain why this would be a great next move for publishers, consumers, and Apple itself…

Who Creates News, And How

Historically, news periodicals were like albums: bundles of content that couldn’t be de-bundled for individual purchase. The Internet changed that, giving readers access to thousands of potential news sources and — thanks to search engines and RSS — the ability to consume individual articles from separate sources rather than getting all of their news in one place.

Today, the news publishing industry consists of newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Although they substantially overlap in many ways apart from their publishing frequency, they’re primarily distinguished from one another by the relative importance of text, photography, audio, video, and layout (graphic design) within their articles. Whereas a newspaper might be fine delivering bare text, each article in a magazine such as Vogue might be entirely reliant on photography and a specific layout. Web sites, by comparison, tend to rely on combinations of text, photography and/or videos, generally with at least some (if not complete) flexibility as to layout.

Who Creates Books, And How

Historically, getting a book published meant winning the approval of a publishing house, which would then invest money in editing, laying out, printing, distributing, and advertising the book, possibly also funding the actual writing and photography/illustrations contained inside. But just like newspapers and magazines, computers and the Internet eventually reduced publishing costs and challenges to the point that an independent individual author could handle everything — typically less than ideally, but well enough — without a publishing company’s backing.

Book publishing is a lot more like news publishing than you might guess. Some books are like newspapers, heavy on text and light on photography, with a minimal need for layout. Others are like magazines, requiring proper balances of text, photography, and layout. Each can technically be assembled by an individual but benefits from the expertise of a team. The major difference is that books are typically produced as one-offs, with no guarantee of a sequel, whereas newspapers, magazines, and news web sites are recurring “periodicals” by design. You don’t subscribe to a book, but you may want to follow the author or publishing company to see what else they produce.

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What Apple’s iBooks + Newsstand Tried To Do

iBooks is the more successful of Apple’s digital reading ventures. Launched alongside the iPad in 2010, it created an on-device vault for digital replicas of visually-heavy art, photo, and cookbooks, an engine for displaying text-heavy books, and a store for purchasing books. Apple later added support for interactive scholastic textbooks, though the company took a huge PR hit when it was found guilty of conspiring to fix digital book prices, and has barely marketed its iBooks Store for years. Still, iBooks has evolved at least a little each year since it arrived in iPhone OS 3.2, and as a part of iOS 9, there’s no sign that it’s going away any time soon.

Introduced in iOS 5, Newsstand similarly attempted to embrace traditional newspapers and magazines for what they were — and add support for what they likely would want to be. As examples, Apple gave The New York Times and Time Magazine equal opportunities to craft digital interfaces that resembled their print publications, with individually-developed apps that could leverage iOS hooks to sell subscriptions, deliver complete “issues” rather than streams of articles, and visually notify readers know when new issues were available to read. Newspapers and magazines could choose to create “digital replicas” of their print editions, or offer reformatted/interactive versions optimized for Apple’s devices. Some web sites were excited enough by Newsstand that they signed up to create and distribute new magazines in the App Store.

Unfortunately, despite support from thousands of leading publications, and an untold number of subscribers around the world, Newsstand effectively collapsed. Apple unilaterally broke some of its core functionality in iOS 7, hobbling the notifications system and shifting to a flat, boring icon that obscured the publications inside. It also de-emphasized Newsstand-supported publications in the App Store, and appeared to be unwilling to resolve longstanding publisher complaints about subscriptions. As a final step, Apple completely removed the special Newsstand folder in iOS 9, leaving former Newsstand apps to fend for themselves in the App Store and find new ways to alert readers to updates.

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What Apple News Is And Isn’t

Apple News is:

Apple News is not:

  • A replacement for printed or digital magazines
  • A place to subscribe to publications or buy books
  • A permanent repository for content, individual or otherwise
  • A consistent display format across devices

It’s important to understand that Apple News is indeed a publishing platform with its own format and specifications. Apple has seeded publishing companies with guidelines enabling the creation of articles with styled text, photo galleries, multimedia content, and iAds. If a publisher adopts Apple’s format, it can sell iAds within its News-formatted content and keep 100% of the proceeds. If not, the content is effectively stripped of whatever advertising the publisher surrounds it with on its web page, and Apple could sell ads against it. Since iOS 9 probably won’t be released until September, there are only a handful of Apple News-formatted pages on display right now within the beta version of the app.

Apart from the prospect of better-looking articles, however, the Apple News app isn’t exactly inspiring. You can create a collection of “Favorites” by specifying publications and topics that interest you, resulting in a grid of doorways that lead to Flipboard-style grids of RSS-scraped articles. Apple also lets you “Explore” collections of suggested publications and topics, drill down within some categories, and search seemingly all of the publications using a unified search engine — a non-trivial new feature that has the potential to be great over time. A tab called “For You” assembles a mish-mosh of recent articles supposedly tailored to your interests, and a Saved tab lets you recall either articles you’ve specifically marked for reading, or items in your reading history.

Notably, most of Apple News’s content isn’t available offline, which is to say that you need an active Internet connection both to acquire new content and read most of the content the app previously accessed. This is a major difference relative to Newsstand, which stored issues on your device for reading at any time, and a weakness that shows how News could and should be more.

In short, Apple News is currently just a glorified RSS reader with the option for news publishers to create and monetize better versions of their web content inside. It’s not terribly exciting, and given what happened with Newsstand, it’s hard to imagine that publishers will be rushing to fund News-formatted versions of most of their upcoming content, particularly if it will just disappear into the ether after a day or two like typical web pages.

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What Apple News Should Be

My belief is that Apple News, Newsstand, and iBooks should effectively be merged into a single Reading app with the best characteristics of all three of Apple’s initiatives. Most of the pieces have already developed — it’s just a question of unifying a bunch of seemingly different types of reading materials within a single place. Just like TV shows, movies, music videos and home videos all live within a single iOS app called Videos, think of Reading as an app-based version of a Barnes & Noble bookstore (minus the old Nooks and awkward optical disc collections).

Newspapers, magazines, and news-focused web sites already have a lot more in common than not. They cover such similar content in such similar ways that most people today would be hard-pressed to completely distinguish them from one another. Books have a lot of overlap, as well. And as has been demonstrated by the market for Kindle Singles — short books and long magazine articles offered at low prices in digital format — as well as the growing popularity (love it or hate it) of fan fiction, the lines dividing web content, books, and periodicals are blurring. There’s no need to keep them in separate apps, or in separate stores.

A single Apple store selling digital books, newspapers, and magazines seems long overdue. Newspapers and magazines got short shrift in the App Store, and would be ideally positioned alongside other reading materials within an expanded Reading Store. Free but ad-supported publications could be offered alongside subscriptions and individual paid books, as well as out-of-copyright free classics, and podcast-like links to RSS feeds. Apple is already effectively doing all of these things already, across different apps and stores, so bringing them together wouldn’t be impossible. It could also be useful. Imagine reading a news story and seeing recommendations of books and magazines that could further your knowledge on the same topic — wouldn’t you consider buying one?

What sort of format should the books, newspapers, and magazines be in? Apple has already advanced its own interactive textbook and Apple News formats alongside the formats iBooks uses for eBooks, art/photo/cookbooks, and interactive textbooks, as well as the “anything goes” app formats newspapers and magazines were told to develop for Newsstand. Yes, it would be easier to have a single format across all forms of readable media. But it’s obvious that publishers would want more choices than a single proprietary Apple layout format, particularly because Apple didn’t create or popularize such a format years ago. Bringing all of the previous reading formats within one app, and perhaps offering publisher incentives (such as a reduced Apple cut of sales) to transfer old publications to the new format, could make things better for publishers and users alike.

It goes without saying that all of this would require high-level Apple approval to implement. But it’s also heavily in Apple’s interest to do so. As it currently stands, Apple News doesn’t have much more than the Apple name and the prospect of maybe-possibly future publisher support to set it apart from the many newsreaders that have come and gone over the years. I’ve had it on my iPad and iPhone for weeks, and it’s already gathering dust. An Apple Reading app, however, could become the core linking books, magazines, newspapers and web content together. It would be a major reason to acquire a big library of content through Apple, and a major impediment to using other devices to consume that content in the future.

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Comments

  1. Ali (@ali_yenign) - 8 years ago

    As long as iOS lets me place the News app in the folder of things I do not use (unlike it did with Newsstand in iOS6), I am OK with it.

  2. TechSHIZZLE.com - 8 years ago

    It’s criminal what Apple has done to Newsstand. Like many of Apple’s initiatives, they seem to have lost interest (iMessages, et al).

    iBooks might very well be sent out to pasture with the Justice Dept. acting as Amazon’s hired gun.

    I really like News, and I’m hoping Apple has the commitment to stay with it and grow the platform.

    • rettun1 - 8 years ago

      I don’t think they’ve given up on iMessage! iOS 8 brought some new features, and now you can use an iPad to send iMessages to your friends with android phones.

      • TechSHIZZLE.com - 8 years ago

        Good point. The more I think about it, I was referring to FaceTime. Steve Jobs said they would share the code but never did.

  3. applegetridofsimandjack - 8 years ago

    Sorry but for me, Apple’s News app has already failed!

    It’s (will be) available in just a handful of countries, which already equal doomed service for me. I really hate this, the same story with iTunes Radio in 2013 and Apple Pay. Thank God iTunes Radio suked. But Apple Pay and Apple News are awesome but to me have both failed because the availability suks.

    • modeyabsolom - 8 years ago

      iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Apple Music, Beats 1 radio, Apple Pay, ebooks that aren’t out of copyright classics. I don’t have any of these Apple services available in my country and probably won’t get Apple News either. No big loss I suppose in the case of the news app, as it seems to be nothing more than a glorified RSS feed. I can’t believe Apple is dumping Newsstand though…another bad decision to add to their already sub-par cloud services.

      When they come up with a new service, I with they would follow through with it and develop it properly, instead of dumping it after a couple of years because they lose interest. This behaviour reminds me of Google and their knack for dumping services shortly after introducing them too.

  4. applegetridofsimandjack - 8 years ago

    At least Newsstand was available in all countries when it launched LOL.

  5. chrisl84 - 8 years ago

    I still never quite understood why a News app was needed by Apple or third party….isnt that what Safari and bookmarks are for?

    • charilaosmulder - 8 years ago

      Websites can be anything, and your bookmarks are a generic way to access whatever you may find on the web. News is especially developed for, well, news. What it SHOULD be, is a better place to discover news, and a better place to read it. Just like the App Store is better at discovery, downloading and updating apps than random websites are.

      Also, almost every news site is full of javascript running in the background tracking your every move for advertising purposes. This has exploded in the last couple of years, and many people don’t realise it. Here’s some eye openers:

      http://blog.lmorchard.com/2015/07/22/the-verge-web-sucks/

      http://daringfireball.net/2015/07/safari_content_blocker_imore

  6. rwanderman - 8 years ago

    If there’s no Mac version of News, or, if they come out with it later as an afterthought like iBooks for the Mac I’ll never embrace it.

    I too am a long time Reeder user who used NetNewsWire before cloud based feeds happened.

    I hate that the Mac is an afterthought more and more these days.

  7. sewollef - 8 years ago

    I too have iOS 9 on my iPad and already the News app is gathering dust. I held out great expectations for this since I want to publish a periodical of my own with changing content and thought this might be the vehicle to do it. How mistaken I was.

    My newspaper of choice [since I’m a Brit] is The Guardian…. but try as I might, I cannot get the newspaper in my feed, despite an image showing it in the Keynote.

    I can’t figure out what this app is supposed to be, and although Newsstand wasn’t great in my view it is infinitely preferable to this new mess. I guess I’ll stick to Zite for now.

    • TechSHIZZLE.com - 8 years ago

      Go the website in Safari. From the Share Sheet (the button that looks like a square with an arrow pointing up), select Request Desktop Site. When the page reloads, re-open the Share Sheet, and there will be an Add to News button.

      Now it’s added to the Nees app.

      • TechSHIZZLE.com - 8 years ago

        I left out that you have to hit the Add to News button. 😄

  8. When I first heard the rumor of Apple News, the morning of the Keynote, I thought they would be moving the separate magazines/newspapers from Newsstand into a single app, Apple News. You log into your various publishers in the app, and it would aggregate the various articles from those newspapers and magazines into a beautiful feed, along with free articles from other sources, such as CNN, ESPN, etc.

    No. If I want to read my Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, Money, or Sports Illustrated magazines, I still need those independent apps. But, if Apple had approached the publishers with this idea, and the publishers declined, I can understand: I doubt Time wants to lose its content, and potentially my paid subscription, in the shuffle with a bunch of free articles.

    But, Jeremy, I have to disagree with you on tossing iBooks into Newsstand or Apple News. I do not want my books mixed in with an ever refreshing feed of news and magazine articles. Books are timeless–not tossed away like a magazine or newspaper. Call me a book segregationist.

    • ericisking - 8 years ago

      I agree; the idea of mixing books with news articles is really awful. I read books to escape into another world. Books are a doorway to the infinite universe beyond the illusion that today’s news is important or meaningful.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      I know that the idea of integrating iBooks into a Reading app sounds a little unusual at first, but I personally see the distinction between reading materials as blurry at best these days. One place to store all your books, magazines, and news, one place to shop for all your books, magazines, and news – it just makes sense to me. A great feature of Newsstand subscriptions is that you’re actually not tossing away old magazines; they’re still there to be re-downloaded and read should you want to go back to them, just like books you’ve put down or finished.

      The key is seeing the varied forms of content as having different levels of transience based on the viewer. One person’s discarded news article is another person’s saved clipping (see Instapaper); a disposable magazine or newspaper may be collectible or worth re-visiting for some reason. Similarly, there are books that one might be hard-pressed to call timeless at first, but may acquire value as a historical snapshot later. My perspective is admittedly based on having worked in each medium, and seeing the long-term value of being able to re-access content over time. I don’t see it as being hugely different from the reconceptualization of music currently taking place with Apple Music – some things you want to keep forever/on-device, other things you are OK accessing on an as-needed basis, other things are fine appearing in a stream of options that you can pick up or ignore…

  9. rogifan - 8 years ago

    I think we’re all getting a little ‘pile on Apple’ heavy these days. Apple News is a brand new platform. Just because it isn’t our idealized version of what a news platform should be right out of the gate doesn’t mean it’s doomed to fail.

    • lkrupp215 - 8 years ago

      It always amazes me that people like those above and the author are still Apple customers. If I had nothing but disdain for everything Apple I would have left the platform long ago.

      • It always amazes me that people are so binary. Why do you have to hate or love a company? Why can’t you just like a company enough to offer constructive feedback on what you like, what you dislike, and what you’d like to see in the future? Maybe I misinterpreted the article, but I don’t see Jeremy’s “disdain for everything Apple.”

  10. Hopefully when Force Touch comes it’ll make it easy to remove or choose more like this/less like this on stories

  11. Arin Failing - 8 years ago

    I want to start by stating that I do know that iOS 9 is still in beta, and not all features are present:
    My wishlist has two items:
    1) allow the user to change how “For You” is presented (I, personally, would like to sort it from newest to oldest)
    2) allow the user to mark a given article as “read” (like other RSS readers do)

  12. For me it doesn’t even launch. It crashes every time it opens.

  13. Tim Schroeder - 8 years ago

    I like Apple News for some things, but like Apple Music, I want to be able to blacklist certain things. I wish I could say NEVER show me news from this source or never show me news about this topic. Then beside that it could learn what I DO like.

  14. Winski - 8 years ago

    Here’s a MUCH easier answer…
    1) Buy FlipBoard and shut ut down.
    2) Rip the ZITE technology OUT of any and all FlipBoard products, projects and anything else that has been taken from it.
    3) Blow-up the rest of FlipBoard.
    4) Rename ZITE as Apple News.
    5) Fin.

  15. Noah Allen - 8 years ago

    I think a reader app should also include podcasts & audiobooks. Within the “explore section” to find a book, you could purchase either audiobook or text or both. And podcasts are much more like spoken articles than anything else.

  16. Absolutely wonderful piece of very detailed proper journalism Jeremy, ive always been impressed by your reviews over the years but this is your coup de grace so far.
    You’ve already identified the flaws and offered the solutions.
    They will be listening to you as you are so influential so can you make your next piece about Apple music?
    No point in commenting further as you’ve already done the whole kit and caboodle.
    Huge respect mate.

  17. I never used Newsstand, as I don’t like reading newspapers on digital devices. I miss too much articles. Second Apple News isn’t available in my country. I used Pulse, but the latest version requires me to become a linkIn member which I don’t want. Pulse allowed me to have an RSS feed newspaper. Also the new way how these newspapers are build up digitally like the new homepages is confusing, endless downscrolling with options to scroll left and right several times, most time I’m really lost and do miss important infos.

    The same goes for Apple Radio or it’s streaming music, the radio isn’t important for Europe (other music, irrelevant infos for this side of the world) and paying a monthly fee for something I don’t use everyday is too expensive (the same can be said for any payed streaming system).

  18. borntofeel - 8 years ago

    Under favorites, they should put a sub-header selector (like in Music) to switch between sources and categories. Now they are all mixed up and it’s hard to see which is which.

  19. darrenoia - 8 years ago

    I’m unclear as to what advantage merging things into one reading app would offer me as a reader. I don’t object to it, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem, which is that so far Apple News doesn’t really improve the reading experience appreciably. Tim Schroeder’s “blacklist” idea above would be a good start on adding value.

  20. Newsstand disappearing but having digital subscriptions active is not a good thing. Fortunately, Apple is not that cold hearted. After a quick call I was informed that during the process of upgrading to iOS9 each subscription will be turned into its own app. So my plan will be to collect all of them and place them into one folder which I will call Magazines.