Apple's News, which launches today, is the latest in a trend toward distributed content
Today's release of iOS 9 will see the debut of News, the much-anticipated content recommendation app that has been hailed alternatively as a rival to Flipboard and as a potential replacement for every other news app. Content from more than 50 publishers will be accessible through News, and when the app automatically appears on home screens worldwide, news organizations will quickly be exposed to an audience numbering in the millions.
Big deal, right?
"We'll see," said Jeff Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. "In this, Apple is just part of a trend toward a more distributed media ecosystem."
Today's launch of News is an example of an ongoing shift — dubbed the "the Year of Distributed Content" by Nieman Lab's Josh Benton — of tech companies and news organizations unshackling news reports from their original sources and circulating them via social media and syndication apps.
By way of example, Jarvis cites the launch of Facebook's Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover and the forthcoming pre-cached content standard from Google and Twitter. Each of these developments, Jarvis says, "point to a next stage in which the content will go to the people more than the people will go to the content."
In an earlier article about News, Benton noted that the distributed paradigm is worrying for news organizations, which for decades controlled how their work was consumed. But the shift has at least one potential upside: It introduces readers to publishers and reporting they might not otherwise see as part of their regular media diet.
Take Slate, for example. The Podcast app, which comes preloaded on Apple devices, helped the online magazine build an enormous audience for its network of podcasts, which it eventually spun off into an independent company. Slate is among the publishers featured in today's launch, and staffers there are optimistic that the app will introduce their work to broader audiences, said Dan Check, vice chairman of The Slate Group.
"When you find a place where people are and when you give them something that they love in that place, it will grow over time into something that's huge," Check said. "That may happen quickly, that may happen slowly — in some ways it doesn't matter. I think we just want to be where people are, and we want to provide them great experiences wherever they are."
Although Slate has an iOS app of its own, Check says he's not worried about News cannibalizing its share of iPhone readers.
"I think that this will grow our total audience," he said. "We expect the traffic to be incremental. Apple News will reach millions of people who are not yet reading Slate."
This sentiment was echoed by Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan, who emphasized the importance of reaching potential readers in a statement announcing The Post's launch on News. The Post is hoping the app lures readers for its national and international news and features content.
"Millions of people use iPhones and iPads every day to get their news, and having the new Apple News app built into iOS 9 presents a huge opportunity for us to reach them," Ryan said.
BuzzFeed, which will also be accessible via News, has a division devoted to creating content exclusively for social media that fits in with an institutional push to distribute its journalism widely. Today's debut dovetails with BuzzFeed's publishing strategy, and the site is launching three channels on the app: BuzzFeed (for video and Web culture content), BuzzFeed Life (for do-it-yourself and cooking content) and BuzzFeed News, said Ryan Johnson, BuzzFeed's vice president of mobile engineering.
"At BuzzFeed, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to publish for the way people consume media today, including the fact that our readers view our stories and videos all over the Web, not just on our own site," Johnson said. "That reality has helped shape our business as a network integrated model, and we’ve been publishing video natively to 20 different distribution platforms for the past year - so our BuzzFeed Motion Pictures group already has great learnings and data back from all they have been experimenting with there."
As has been reported elsewhere, the readers will be accompanied by revenue from ads on the content they consume. Publishers will keep all the revenue earned on advertising they sell and 70 percent of the revenue on ads sold by Apple.
It's too early to tell whether the app will be a big moneymaker for news organizations, Check said. But they would be foolish to turn away an opportunity to reach more readers, especially when there's a financial incentive involved.
"Apple has a great track record here," he said. "And we've seen that there are great returns on getting in early on these sorts of things."
Although there has been much public fretting about tech companies supplanting newspapers, TV networks and websites as the primary distributer of news content, those worries ignore the reality that news organizations simply can't keep pace with Silicon Valley in terms of technological innovation, said Simon Owens, a content and social media marketing consultant.
"Think of it this way: If The New York Times struck a deal with CVS to have its print edition sold at CVS, you wouldn't see a bunch of hand-wringing about how its handing over the keys to CVS," Owens said in a message. "So why are there so many dire warnings about it handing over the keys to Facebook, especially when there are dozens of other major distribution channels — like Flipboard and now this Apple News app?"