April 7, 2016 Last Updated 7:12 am

Readership inside Apple News and other third party digital solutions proves disappointing

Publishers, especially B2B publishers, find that reaching readers via the new digital platforms is too much of a crapshoot to be a sustainable business model for them to investment in

There is no shortage of digital distribution platforms that want content from publishers. Whether it is Facebook’s Instant Articles or Apple News, Flipboard or the digital newsstands, these efforts by tech companies depend on one thing: that publishers remain desperate to find a winning strategy to reach digital readers.

Publishers have proved less than enthusiastic about digital edition apps, often switching from native digital editions to PDF replicas after a short while – or like Postmedia, launching innovative digital afternoon editions, then shuttering them within a year as a way to reduce costs.

Apple News TalkingNewMedia iPhone appApple’s latest effort in this area is, of course, Apple News. The aggregated content app, like just about everything Apple does, was opened to a very select group of media partners with the promise that other publishers could come in using their RSS feeds, then later would be given access to the Apple News Format.

But in January Apple’s Eddy Cue, who runs the App Store, and is responsible for the demise of the Newsstand and the mismanagement of the Magazines & Newspapers category, tried to make excuses for the poor readership being seen in the Apple News app. He claimed that Apple had been mistakenly underestimating the number of readers using the News app, and that the numbers were really better than they appeared, telling the WSJ that Apple was “in the process of fixing that now, but our numbers are lower than reality.” But then admitting that “we don’t know what the right number is.”

But publishers involved in the app have not been seen much readership.

“The traffic has been modest relative to the enormous install base of iOS devices,” Julie Hansen, president of Business Insider, said in the same article.

Like the Newsstand, and now the Magazines & Newspapers category, the Apple News app is all about media properties being promoted within it. If your app appeared on the front page of the Newsstand, for instance, there was a good chance your app would see strong downloads. But that only lasted as long as the publisher’s app appeared on the front page of the Newsstand as Apple sent out notices regularly to readers reminding them their subscriptions were renewing (and therefore could be cancelled).

“It started at such a high level that we could handle a decline for a long time,” editor and publisher Glenn Fleishman said when announcing that he would be shuttering his digital magazine, “but despite every effort — including our first-year anthology crowdfunded a bit under a year ago — we couldn’t replace departing subscribers with new ones fast enough.”

“At our height, the magazine had nearly 35,000 monthly subscribers paying $2 every month. Our peak, however, was February 2013. Knowing the numbers full well, I bought The Magazine in May 2013. We now have about 2,000 yearly and 4,000 monthly subscribers,” Fleishman admitted at the time he announced the end of publishing The Magazine.

One CEO at a digital publishing platform, speaking on background, told me that he knew Apple had given up on the Newsstand early on, and that it took Apple over two years to finally shutter it after having already decided to give up on the product. Meanwhile, the company never publicly acknowledged its plans and let publishers continue to invest in digital edition apps while it worked on killing off the Newsstand.

For B2B publishers, the Newsstand – and digital editions, in general – have not been a very good way to reach industry readers. For one thing, there was no built in way to qualify readers and Apple certainly has no clue as to the needs of B2B publishers (some say they are not much more informed about consumer publishing, either). For B2B publishers, releasing a B2B magazine app into the App Store is like throwing a magazine into a crowd and hoping there might be a few qualified readers among the crowd. There might be, but then those qualified readers might not see you throw the magazine in, so even then won’t end up a reader.

Apple News is very much the same. Readership for most publishers is very low, but for B2B publishers it doesn’t look like it will make much sense.

TNM has been experimenting with Apple News and found that readership numbers are unacceptable. TNM has about as many readers accessing TNM content each day within the app as it does accessing TNM’s original Blogspot website that hasn’t been updated since June of 2013 (when TNM relaunched as a self-hosted, redesigned website).

Meanwhile, TNM has been experimenting with a new website, one more consumer oriented, though still related to the media business (more details on this later). This new site was also accepted into Apple News and despite not officially launching yet, has seen better results from the Apple News app. But only if an article gets promoted by Apple.

This, in the end, is the problem with all of Apple’s publishing schemes so far: the success of the effort is completely dependent on whether Apple promotes the publisher’s content. This is true of other platforms, as well, but no matter which platform we might be talking about, it is a very poor solution for independent publishers. It means that success is random and fleeting. One day a publisher’s numbers spike, the next day they disappear. One is then encouraged to not produce content for potential readers, but for nameless staff at the platform determining what content they will promote on any given day.

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