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Insider: Apple News Today isn’t an expression of the Podcast Platform War

From the Apple corporate blog, announced yesterday:

Apple is introducing several new features for Apple News and Apple News+, including audio stories of some of the best feature stories from Apple News+, a daily audio news briefing hosted by Apple News editors, and curated local news collections beginning in five cities and regions and expanding to more areas in the future.

While the local news stuff is of personal interest to me, the audio stuff is really what we’re here for with this discussion.

If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the context around Apple News as I understand it: Apple News is meant to be a snazzy Apple Music-esque hub for news and media consumers on the iPhone. It’s free for the most part, and the logic seemed pretty straightforward: publishers supply a number of articles into the Apple News system with the promise of elevated traffic, audiences are treated to a curated set of stories, and Apple gets more engagement on their platform.

In March 2019, the company launched a premium subscription layer, Apple News+, which established a glossier layer onto the existing system. (Keep in mind: when some folks talk about the possibility of Apple getting into exclusive and original podcasts, they sometimes view Apple News+ as a potential model.)

While the Apple News app itself serves up a generally fine user experience — I’m only an occasional user — it does have something of an incentive problem. The Apple News team argues that it’s in the game to help quality journalism — in addition to generating revenue, of course — but there’s been consistent skepticism that publishers would be getting proportionally enough from what they would have gained investing their distributional attention elsewhere, and there’s always the underlying concerns of being too dependent on a platform and of Apple being too much of a gate-keeper, given the curatorial mandate. And when Apple News+ was established, the deal that the company offered participating publishers seemed like not a very good one, even at launch. (I highly recommend this analysis from The Verge’s Casey Newton.)

By the end of 2019, publisher sentiment seemed to flow against Apple News’ favor. In December, Digiday reported that publishers weren’t impressed by what they were getting from participating in Apple News+. And last month, the New York Times opted to pull out of Apple News entirely. (Of course, the Times is likely one of the few news organization capable of doing so with relatively little friction.)

Meanwhile, Apple note that Apple News remains the number one news app in the US, which may or may not be related to the fact that it also owns the platform that a large percentage of Americans use to download news apps on.

ANYWAY. Long contextualizing preamble, but it’s important to ingest if we’re going to grok the proper significance of the audio stuff. And the short answer, in my mind, is this: I probably wouldn’t read too much into it.

There are two audio products here. The first is the Apple News+ Audio Stories, in which Apple will produce about twenty audio stories — i.e. voice narration performances of selected stories from participating publishers — a week, and they will only be accessible to paid Apple News+ subscribers. The Apple News team has curatorial power, obviously, and my understanding is that these audio stories are produced in-house. (This is in contrast to the “Spoken Edition” experiment that was attempted in late 2016, which were produced by SpokenLayer.) You can see the basic logic here: the product is meant to increase the value of an Apple News+ subscription. The basic questions, though, is ever-present: is this something audiences and possible paying Apple News+ subscribers actually want?

Maybe! If the move sounds familiar, that’s because you’re probably thinking about Audm, a similarly-structured service that the New York Times acquired in March. That acquisition probably validated the theory for Apple, which is why we’re seeing Apple dip their toes into this exact model, albeit within their own existing revenue context. Interestingly, it also sets Apple News to function as a direct competitor to an aspect of the Times’ business model. Which probably contributes — slightly, not completely — to the incentive for the Times to pull out Apple News. Hoo boy.

For what it’s worth, as a personal matter, I still don’t really buy into the Apple News+ Audio Stories or the Audm thesis. But then again, I am but a single individual, and I’m also not an Op-Ed writer, which means I’m not wont to take my personal beliefs as generally representative of a wide swathe of people.

The second audio product is the Apple News Today… audio show? Podcast? Program? From the Apple corporate blog:

With Apple News Today, a daily audio news briefing, Apple News editors and co-hosts Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino guide listeners through some of the most fascinating stories in the news — and how the world’s best journalists are covering them. Apple News Today is free to all listeners and available mornings Monday through Friday directly in the News app in the US and on Apple Podcasts.

(Basu, by the way, is a former WNYC staffer, and Gerladino was most recently at Al Jazeera.)

Before we hit the analysis on this, a quick territory-related detail to clock: the Apple News Today effort should be broadly thought about as being limited to the US, but you have to parse the technicalities a bit. Apple News Today itself will only be available on the American version of the Apple News app, while the version distributed over podcast feeds will be available in a number of countries outside the US like the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and France, among others. As far as I know, there doesn’t appear to be any plan in place to produce non-American — or non-English — versions of this audio show/podcast/program.

Ok, so: it’s tempting to frame the release of this new product as some kind of major harbinger for Apple’s big exclusive podcast strategy — e.g. this is Apple’s answer to The Daily, thus deepening to growing Apple v Times media rivalry! So on and so forth — but I don’t think that’s the case.

In fact, I think we already know what seems to be the basic gist behind Apple’s exclusive/original pod strategy, which is to create shows that would serve as promotional experiences for other more monetizable Apple products. We’ve seen this with the Bloomberg reports that Apple’s original podcast commissions are meant to promote their Apple TV+ shows. We’ve seen this with the Zane Lowe Interview Series podcast (plus, more recently, Songs for Life), available on Apple Podcast and the vast connected galaxy of third-party podcathers, which can largely be read as a show that promotes the Apple Music service.

And now we have Apple News Today, a product that pretty much seems to be a promotional tool meant to drive more people to the Apple News app, such that they can be monetized as News+ subscribers.

Sure, I suppose you can read this move as some sort of approximation of Spotify’s exclusive podcast strategy. Spotify signing exclusive podcasts and developing original podcasts to drive more usage on its platform, which would then lead to monetization via subscription and other products, like advertising. The construction could be said to be similar for Apple: Apple seems to be commissioning original and exclusive programming meant to drive more usage on Apple products, which would then lead to monetization chiefly via subscription on those various products.

But the fundamental difference lies in directionality: Spotify is using exclusive/original podcast programming to absorb as much of the podcast ecosystem as possible, while Apple is using exclusive/original podcast programming to power its other shit. Furthermore, Apple doesn’t seem to be budging in its original stance towards the open ecosystem — which means, fundamentally, this isn’t exactly the platform wars open advocates were worried about.

In my mind, the best way to think about Apple News Today is to see it as equivalent to Zane Lowe’s position in the Apple Music service. Lowe produces the service’s Beats 1 programming, meant to be a strong draw for music consumers and enthusiasts that would become Apple Music service users and paid subscribers. But Apple Music, as a service, isn’t fundamentally a pound-for-pound radio station alternative… though, of course, it competes with the radio station business in an orthogonal way.

All of which is to say, Apple News Today isn’t Apple’s answer to the daily news podcast, or an indicator of some larger exclusives strategy. (Though, who knows, if they see opportunity from the data, they’d probably go for it, because that’s what effective corporate giants do.)

Apple News Today is just the Beats 1 station of the Apple News service.