July 11, 2017 Last Updated 10:25 am

Google updates iOS ‘News & Weather’ app; what publishers want in a 3rd party platform

With so many publishers delivering content to third party apps, and with the branding and much of the editorial control residing with the companies who own the apps, it is easy to see why most publishers are losing interest in what the tech giants have to offer them

There have been only a few media app updates in the past few days of interest, with Google’s rather extensive update for Google News & Weather the most interesting.

The full app description is below, but notice the part about Weekly Digest being removed.

I found it interesting because Google actually knows whether or not this section was getting much use, as you would expect. But yet this is not something offered to publishers in other platforms. That is, I don’t know whether the “People” section is very popular in Apple News, that would be helpful to know. I can only figure that out by adding up the views from individual stories and then making a guess (because some stories appear in more than one section).

In any case, here is the full description for Google’s update:

What’s New in Version 2.0.1035
◦ Changes to make it easier to navigate news categories and sections
◦ Use the Headlines, Local and For You tabs on the bottom to visit the corresponding screens
◦ On Headlines, the sections can be accessed from the swipeable header
◦ Settings menu on top left to personalize, change editions etc.
◦ Weekly Digest removed based on usage
◦ Bug fixes

There is a lot of talk today (and yesterday) about Facebook’s new paid subscription scheme for Instant Articles. It is hard for me to get too worked up about this as we’ve seen this show before.

Admittedly Facebook has made a few concessions to the needs of publishers this time around, such as more data sharing, but the initiative comes at a time when more and more publishers are aware of just how much damage they are doing to themselves by boosting Facebook (and Google), and how little they are getting in return.

This week started with the News Media Alliance calling for an antitrust exemption for publishers in order to take on Google and Facebook, so it is not surprising that some major news organizations are less than enthusiastic about the prospects of paid subscriptions through Instant Articles panning out.

One reason is that Facebook controls so much of the content flow, as does Google inside its News app, and Apple inside Apple News. Yes, one can create channels, but the real game is played on the front pages of the platforms, where stories are picked out of the mass of content and promoted.

TNM has been part of Apple News for a while now and the site’s traffic is like a heart monitor of a patient on their last legs, with spikes every once in a while, but otherwise little activity. This shouldn’t surprise, inside any third party app there is a glut of content, and little change to break out. (Google claims there are 75,000 publications inside its News app, for instance.)

Still, this is where new readers are so the lure of any spike in readership is often enough to draw in publishers.

But once in what do publishers really want from the tech giants, what will satisfy them?

The answer is often made too complicated than it needs to be. What is needed is for the digital platform to be as open and flexible as the web itself.

Just compare what any media outlet can do online with what it can do inside a third party app.

It has taken many publishes two decades to truly get comfortable with web publishing, but most now see it as the only real platform they can rely on going forward. Print remains part of the plan, but publishers know they must succeed online.

Third party apps like those from Apple, Google, Facebook and others remain areas of experimentation, and those experiments are not resulting in much to brag about, at least for publishers.

The web, of course, is even more crowded with content than these apps, but publishers can display the full depth of their content and more easily differentiate themselves from their competition. Just as importantly, they know who to talk to when a silly story ends up leading their site.

I’ve said it before, but publishers really blew it by not pushing their digital editions harder. Inside a digital newsstand there is more of a level playing field, and websites like Magvault (which sadly was shuttered earlier this year) made an attempt to improve discoverability inside the digital newsstands.

While the Newsstand may have been crowded, and discoverability difficult, improvements could have been made had Apple wanted them, and magazine and newspaper companies and associations demanded them. A few years ago I talked to the head of one of the magazine associations and asked him pointblank if he had reached out to Apple to discuss the needs of his member publishers. He said “No” and was actually surprised with the question. I followed up by asking if digital was important to his member publishers and he said “Absolutely”. I let it sit there a while for him to contemplate the irony.

We still have a very long way to go in this journey towards a viable, profitable digital publishing model. The solution, I am afraid, will not come Google or Facebook or Apple. It won’t even come from the association professionals who claim to represent the industry (but who really only act is PR agents). It must come from the industry itself. But I am sure of one thing, that solution involves publishers having the maximum amount of control over both their content and their monetization strategies.

Note: Lucia Moses has a good story on Facebook’s attempts to woe publishers here.

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