The Upgrade

Apple News+ Is Damn Near Too Much of a Good Thing

It’s easy to get lost inside News+

BBack in the late ’80s, my favorite magazine was Premiere. This was a glossy movie magazine for those who obsessed over the craft and business of film. Celebrities appeared on the cover and actors were profiled, as was the case with People and the Hollywood Reporter, but no other magazine put you on the set, in the writers’ room, or at the negotiating table with execs like Premiere did.

I loved it for the insight, as well as the large photos and layouts, and I vividly recall when they shrunk the magazine down from Life size to something roughly equivalent to the New Yorker. Premiere never really recovered, and the publication limped along until the declining economics of print killed it in 2007.

I was reminded of that classic glossy publication as I perused dozens and dozens of magazines in Apple News+ on my iPhone 7, an iPhone XS Max, an iPad Mini, and the iPad Pro 12.9.

The iPad Pro came closest to recreating that classic Premiere format. Even so, it was smaller — not quite the same experience, even on the biggest tablet Apple has to offer.

News+, Apple’s new home for paid editorial content, is both a reminder of the pleasure of reading print magazines and an admission that, no matter how many cool animations and interactive features you slide into Vanity Fair, it will never be the same as reading a physical magazine. But if you can accept that the News+ experience is its own distinct product, it can be quite easy to lose yourself among its endless digital pages.

Like many of the services Apple recently launched in Cupertino, News+ is not, in fact, a standalone app experience, but an augmentation of an existing one. I’ve been using Apple News, Apple’s largely human-run news aggregator and push service, for a few years now, and I’ve even come to rely on its Apple Watch notifications. Slipping News+ inside the already well-distributed and popular News app makes sense.

After agreeing to pay $9.99 a month — though the first month is free — I soon had access to News+ on all of my devices that were signed into the same iCloud account. I even set up family sharing so my wife and kids could get lost in all the titles.

If you used Texture, the precursor app to News+ that Apple acquired last year, the magazine stand in News+ will feel quite familiar. It’s like a more orderly Hudson News online, without the random Dunkin’ Donuts in the back.

There are literally hundreds of titles inside News+. The easiest way to see them all is in the alphabetized catalog.

The homepage is preloaded with magazines you’ve checked out previously or downloaded for offline reading. Above that is a side-scrolling list of categories that includes all the topics you’d imagine, from style and beauty to cars. I noticed that while Apple News+ includes the slightly racy Maxim, other R-rated titles like Playboy are nowhere to be found. Still, if you’re sharing News+ with family, especially young children, you might want to turn on parental controls in your iOS settings. This is one situation where I wish I could adjust those settings within the app and do it on title-by-title basis, rather than limiting access to the entire thing.

The News+ homepage.

There’s also a Featured section, which is notable for the amount of effort the publishers put into each magazine. Apple provides a special Apple News Format tool that offers publishers significant flexibility in how they present their designs and articles. Publishers that push the boundaries with animated covers, moving backgrounds, and animations end up in the coveted Featured section.

However, the majority of the 300-plus titles in Apple News+ have opted for a more straightforward port, plugging their content management systems into the News+ platform and essentially letting it suck in their article content.

Even with the most highly designed titles, there is tremendous consistency to the look and feel of these publications within Apple News+. There’s the large, beautiful cover, which, depending on the screen you use and the amount of work the publisher put into it, may or may not have some 3D movement to it when you move the screen around. Right below the cover is the table of contents. From there, you can dive into any story and start swiping left or right to view the next article or ad. This style of digital magazine navigation hasn’t changed much since the days of Zinio, and it’s still effective.

The imagery can be arresting or mouthwatering. In Vanity Fair, for instance, I found my appetite triggered as I stared at a full-screen bowl of kelp noodle chap chae. And I couldn’t take my eyes off Esquire’s Samuel L. Jackson cover and the photos of him inside.

Covers and photographs look good in News+.

The responsive design of News+ means magazines look equally good on large and small screens. That said, it is more fun to peruse these titles on larger screens, where the imagery and ads really pop.

It’s important to understand that these are truly digital magazines and not websites gussied up to look like print. In fact, many of the same print and digital magazine rules apply here as they do in the analog world. With the exception of tiny space-filler ads, house ads, and classifieds, the ads you’ll see in News+ are the same ones the publishers will run in their physical magazines.

In fact, that’s the way it has to be. According to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), an independent cross-media verification organization that, among other things, checks circulation numbers for publications, the magazines inside News+ qualify as “digital replica editions.” An AAM spokesperson says the organization was working with Texture long before Apple bought the company and even worked out a way to account for service subscriptions and the opening of individual issues to count toward each magazine’s overall circulation rate base. Of course, simply opening one issue of People in News+ does not make you a full-year subscriber.

“If the consumer opens the April issue, then the April issue counts… in total paid circulation for the April issue. If they do not open the May issue, then May is not a circulation unit,” explains the AAM spokesperson.

The degree to which these micro-transactions and incremental subscriptions will improve the fortunes of an industry that’s reeling from consolidation, cuts ,and falling revenue remains to be seen. But if the quality of experience and value are any measure, then News+ has the potential to be a wild success — at least for Apple, which is said to have signed up 200,000 News+ subscribers in its first 48 hours on the market. (Though remember — that first month is free.)

So much content

Imagine being trapped in that Hudson News with nothing but time (and doughnuts). You would read everything in sight. News+ makes it easy to jump from publication to publication and, especially on larger screens, makes it painless to flip or slide through endless pages of texts and pictures. There’s even access to a limited number of back issues. In Wired’s feed, I was able to go back to March 2018.

Oh, those big pictures of yummy food.

Search is somewhat hidden under the “Following” button, but it’s worth exploring since it lets you identify channels and topics you want to follow by using the heart icon. While I think it would make sense to make search more prominent, it may be hidden by design. Remember that each issue you open counts as a kind of micro-subscription. Siri also lives inside News+ under the Follow section, and it will helpfully suggest topics and publications based on how you use your device.

Inside the News+ Vanity Fair channel.

One thing I wish News+ would offer is the ability to mark up or annotate content with the Apple Pencil and share those notes with other News+ members — perhaps to recall the classic newspaper clippings your mom used to send you.

Because, of course, there are a handful of premium subscription newsletters and newspapers beyond the magazine content on News+. Most notable is a limited version of the Wall Street Journal — rivals like the Washington Post and New York Times aren’t available, perhaps because of a rumored 50/50 revenue split with Apple. WSJ content stays on Apple News+ for three days and then disappears.

This much content for $9.99 a month is almost too good to be true, especially because subscribing to any one of these magazines is generally about the same cost as a monthly News+ subscription — though you’ll often get that magazine for an entire year. Still, especially because I can share Apple News+ with my entire family of four, it feels too good to last.

Lasting value?

Every subscriber these magazines collect through News+ is temporary at best. In the old days of print circulation, you could hold on to a subscriber for years (mostly by making it nearly impossible to unsubscribe). Here, every subscription battle fought and won with one issue is potentially lost by the next one.

My concern is that magazines won’t see the bumps in circ numbers that they need for higher per-page ad rates, which means this could be a losing proposition for them, even as they struggle mightily on the real print side. If that happens, publishers will drag Apple back to the negotiating table, and suddenly we’ll be paying $14.99 a month or more.

Some might still consider that a good deal, but will they feel the same when it’s $24.99 a month? I could be wrong. Perhaps Apple has finally broken the mold, figuring out publishing economics where no one else could. But based on my 30-plus years in the business, I highly doubt that.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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