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Nov. 7, 2016, 8:38 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

After a slow start, Apple News is emerging as a significant traffic driver for some news orgs

The traffic picture is improving for publishers on Apple News, but news organizations still have some big hangups when it comes to measurement and monetization.

Apple News may finally be starting to live up to its promise, at least when it comes to traffic.

Alongside the launch of iOS 10 in September, Apple announced a handful of updates to Apple News, which it launched last fall. Along with some cosmetic changes like a new logo and typeface, the new version of the app brought some much-needed features for publishers, including breaking news notifications and support for paid subscriptions. But for many publishers, the most welcome change was to the traffic it gives publishers, which has grown in a big way.

CNN, for example, says its Apple News content got 36.5 million unique readers in September, a major increase from August’s 5 million. Its pageviews also increased significantly to 274 million, up from 43 million a month before.

“It’s really quite a remarkable story,” said Alex Wellen, CNN’s chief product officer. While CNN had seen “steady traffic growth” for most of the year,” said Wellen, Apple’s tweaks to its news app have changed the traffic picture significantly.

Wellen added that CNN has seen a significant increase in interest in its notifications as well. On the first day of the Apple News relaunch, CNN’s notifications reached 188,000 users; on October 30, only a few weeks later, that number increased to 3.7 million.

Bloomberg, too, has benefited from the update. Unique visitors to its Apple News content spiked 400 percent in October, thanks to a combination of regular inclusion in the Apple News “Top Stories” section and interest in its breaking news notifications. M. Scott Havens, Bloomberg’s global head of digital, said that the organization owes much of that growth to the success of its politics coverage, which “has overindexed there for us. People on Apple News tend to be a bit older and more engaged with the campaign cycle,” he said. A Mark Halperin interview with Donald Trump, for example, was particularly successful on the platform.

More regional organizations seem to be seeing gains as well. Boston Globe Media, which pushes its Boston.com content into Apple News, was drawn to the app’s new subscription, notification, and newsletter features, according to Matt Karolian, Boston Globe Media’s director of social media. The traffic part of the equation is paying off as well. Boston.com sees “massive spikes in traffic when a local story goes national,” said Karolian. “When we do see spikes, we are seeing hundreds of thousands of unique readers,” he said.

Apple’s editorial choices play a role there: Both Havens and Wellen pointed out that Apple regularly features content from their outlets within its human-curated “Featured Stories” section, which drives a lot of interest from readers.

Other publishers are still waiting to see that degree of interest with their own content. Chris Schieffer, senior product director at Slate, said that Slate’s Apple News traffic has been “generally pretty flat since the update,” despite some regular spikes in clicks on its election coverage. “My guess is that’s not related to any of the iOS 10 updates — it’s just the news cycle,” he said. Slate has not invested too many resources into Apple News and is taking a wait-and-see approach as Apple fleshes out more of the app’s backend analytics and advertising features.

Publishers’ current rosy view of Apple News is a relatively new trend. At launch, dozens of publishers had signed on, eager for a chance to get in front of Apple’s user base. The early results were disappointing. Publishers, including Time Inc. then-CEO Joe Ripp, said they weren’t happy with the slow traffic growth on the app. Apple added to the anxiety earlier this year when it disclosed that it had been undercounting audience data. Most recently, Apple threw publishers a curveball when it started to divert links from articles in the news section of the Spotlight search screen to Apple News rather than to publishers’ websites. That was a big deal for many sites, which saw mobile website traffic  from Spotlight shrink after the change.

CNN’s Wellen said he wasn’t very concerned by the tweak, which he said felt inevitable. “That behavior of Spotlight opening up a webpage in Apple News was not a good experience,” he said. “As long as you can assure the new traffic is properly attributed and you’re monetizing it appropriately, then the change is actually a better experience for the user and the brand. Spotlight was just added value.”

The story is slightly different on the revenue front. Monetization is “still a work in progress,” noted Havens. Slate, in a similar position, is “not monetizing [Apple News] very well at the moment,” said Schieffer. Wellen said CNN “has monetized its stories,” though he wouldn’t give specific details. Ads still feel like a rare occurrence for its Apple News content; publishers are still eager for integration with comScore, a major hurdle to getting advertisers interested in the platform.

At the same time, it’s clear that Apple has been listening to publishers and taken steps to implement the kind of features needed to make Apple News a viable platform for not just audience development, but monetization as well. In March, Apple made a handful of big additions to the app, including an analytics dashboard and new ad formats, both key issues for publishers looking generate revenue on the platform.

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Havens, Wellen, and Schieffer all said they were impressed with Apple’s willingness to hear and respond to publishers concerns about the app, despite the slow rollout of certain key features.

“We don’t work with everybody,” said Havens. “More and more, with the size of our organization, we have to pick and choose the relationships we have based on several factors, one of which is the openness of communication with the partner. We’ve been happy with Apple in that respect.”

POSTED     Nov. 7, 2016, 8:38 a.m.
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