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June 29, 2020, 2 p.m.

Newsonomics: The New York Times is opting out of Apple News

A giant potential audience isn’t good enough on its own anymore: “It’s time to re-examine all of our relationships with the big platforms.”

The New York Times has decided to opt out of Apple News.

On its own, that may seem like just one more move in the chess game between major news companies and the platforms. But it could also be an indication of a more geologic movement. Will the rest of 2020 bring tectonic shifts in platforms’ power over news — or just a few more small tremors?

The growing ad boycott of Facebook by global marketers is another indication that the shaking may bring more of a jolt this time. So are the state attorneys generals’ actions and the soon-to-come Department of Justice antitrust move.

“It’s time to re-examine all of our relationships with the big platforms,” New York Times COO Meredith Levien told me. “And we’re reexamining them on three axes that are all interrelated, but different with each of the players.”

Levien’s three questions:

  • “What role does the company play in helping bring audiences to the Times? Or said more technically, what role do they play in that funnel?”
  • “What role does this company play in helping us do the main thing we’re trying to do? Which is scale direct relationships with people and get them to form a habit and ultimately pay.”
  • What’s the value equation — “recognizing that these companies get substantial value from our investment in original journalism”?

“All three of those things really matter,” says Levien, who came to the Times in 2013 as head of advertising and moved into the COO job, Mark Thompson’s second-in-command, three years ago. She’s widely considered a prime contender for Thompson’s job whenever the 62-year-old CEO exits.

“At this moment, it doesn’t make sense for us to participate in Apple News anymore.”

This likely won’t be the only adjustment the Times makes in the coming months on its platform relationships. “In the last year, 18 months, we’re thinking really hard about all of our relationships in this context,” she said. “We’re really trying to deeply calibrate how do we cut our own top through that ecosystem in a way that accounts for its reality? That’s really what I’m describing to you. We get a little better with every passing year at how we do that. So that’s why you see us making a change like this.”

In short, the Times audience machine is proving more able to move towards its goal — 10 million subscribers in 2025 — on its own.

“This has been a moment where something like 250 million — somewhere between 250 and 300 million people — used The New York Times at the height of the COVID crisis,” Levien said. “When something like 6 in 10 American adults used The New York Times in March. And that’s a bigger opportunity than we’ve had before to drive relationships with people.

“Ultimately the thing we’re trying to do is play a bigger role in many more people’s lives. And I think with each passing year, we’re getting better and better at doing that ourselves. That doesn’t mean we don’t need distribution partners — we certainly do. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to find the outlets for our content that help us build audience. But I think that the equation for how we evaluate them changes.”

So this isn’t The New York Times cutting off all its platform relationships. But it’s not a minor tremor, either.

The publisher/platform dance

Think of this as the next starting point for negotiation — the sort of negotiation common when players are on a more even playing field, reassessing their mutual value.

But of course this still isn’t close to being an even playing field. The absolute dominance of the big platforms in business life is hard to overestimate. The Times, for instance, will still work closely with Apple on podcasts — considering the increasing value of its flagship franchist The Daily — and via its App Store, where the Times mobile app has proved key to building its strong subscriber engagement times.

Thompson hasn’t been shy about talking about the dangerous dance publishers still feel compelled to do with the huge platforms. Just a year ago, he spoke about why the Times, like The Washington Post, didn’t join in the launch of Apple News+, Apple’s fledgling, magazine-heavy paid offering. He said then that Apple News+ “jumbled different news sources into these superficially attractive mixtures.”

It can be tough to understand the questions in these complex news company/aggregator relationships. In many ways, it comes down to how consumers understand what they’re getting from whom.

Ask people and many will tell you they’re getting news “from their phones.” And they are. But The New York Times — like all other news publishers who see reader revenue as the only route forward — wants them to know they’re getting that news from them. The Times want a direct reader relationship — one that can hopefully be converted to subscription.

Of course, that publisher–aggregator push–pull conflict goes back to the early web. Yahoo News — and debates among publishers about whether and how they should participate in it — dates back more than two decades. (As an executive at Knight Ridder Digital, I recall negotiating a 1999-era aggregation deal with CNET’s Snap news aggregation product and debating the same questions: Who is getting what value here?)

The Times has been holding back what it gives to Apple News for a long time. “We’ve been doing a limited number of stories a day — it went from a lot of stories at the beginning, broadly, to a smaller number,” Levien said. In return, the Times gets to promote its newsletters, subscription offers, and other calls-to-action, and it gets Comscore credit for its audience reading there. Basically, it gets branding and reach — but no direct revenue stream.

Even some of its users may be confused about what Apple News is, exactly. For many, it’s just generic “news on my phone,” a set of notifications or a curation that pops up if they purposely (or accidentally) swipe or touch something. But it reaches a big audience — 125 million users a month as of April, up from 100 million three months earlier. It’s one of several platform news aggregation plays: Google and Facebook compete directly worldwide, and Axel Springer’s Upday competes in Europe. It’s distinct from Apple News+, which is mainly a magazine product plus three strong news players, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The Toronto Star.

Apple News says the Times is one of the few publishers to opt out of its baseline product.

“The New York Times has only offered Apple News a few stories per day,” Apple spokesperson Fay Sliger said in a statement. “We are committed to providing the more than 125 million people who use Apple News with the most trusted information and will continue to do so through our collaboration with thousands of publishers, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and we will continue to add great new outlets for readers.

“We are also committed to supporting quality journalism through the proven business models of advertising, subscriptions, and commerce.”

How the Times did its calculation

The Times’ decision is all about the power of the direct publisher–journalist–reader relationship — the core of the reader revenue proposition — and the only way forward for news companies these days.

The Times’ move could be highly specific to the Times and not a harbinger of shifts to come. After all, no one else has been able to accomplish what the Times has: 6 million total subscribers, more than triple the number it had at the height of print, and on pace to reach its goal of 10 million in 2025.

The farther it finds itself along that road, the more confidence it has in its own capabilities. And the more readers and subscribers it has, the more data it can analyze to see what works with what sorts of readers. And that analysis proved this to the Times: Apple News was not a net plus.

How did its analysis work? There are two calculations. First is the question of how the Times itself can convert its more of its current readers into subscribers.

“We’re getting increasingly confident in our ability to build and scale direct relationships on our own platforms,” Levien said. “Therefore, we’re very focused on: What does the funnel look like? What does the distribution partner bring to us? We’re just getting sort of clearer and sharper about it. And then as we think about any of these relationships, we’re also asking ourselves: Is this a product that is mostly, or purely, about bringing audience to the Times?”

Second, there’s this intriguing calculation — partly quantitative and, I’d suspect, deeply intuitive as well: Is Apple News (or any platform that want the Times content) a substitute — the dreaded good-enough alternative for busy news readers?

“There are plenty of people in the world that say, “I get my news from the internet.” Which is something that isn’t a news destination,” she said. “We think very hard about if something is likely to be, in whole or in part, a substitutional product. It makes us think hard about value exchange. Are we getting enough in terms of value exchange? And that might be economics, that might be audience sent our way. It might be something that makes it easier for us to drive a direct relationship. That’s the calculator.”

The shift?

Is this indeed part of a wider shift in the relationship of major news providers and Google and Facebook?

Consider the latest datapoint: Google announced Friday a new program to “license” news from publishers, put into perspective well by the Lab’s Joshua Benton. Google and Facebook have been ramping up programs to aid publishers. Some of these programs have real value, in training, in funding, or in a few cases — quite selectively — in actually paying for news articles. To date, regional publishers tell me they’ve heard little to nothing about direct payment for news content. That could change, or the Google program — which noted Germany’s Der Spiegel, Australia’s InQueensland and InDaily, and Brazil’s Diarios Associados in its initial release — may well just focus very selectively in its choice of titles and geography.

It’s no coincidence that these pay programs are ramping up in lockstep with pressures on the platforms mounting across at least three continents. In Australia, in Canada and in Europe, legislators and regulators have raised their voices and leveled new threats. The mantra around the news media world: Pay us.

We could see this coming, even before the added COVID-driven pressures on publishers, as I pointed out in January. And there’s no doubt we’ll see more of it. Given the state of generalized global angst, of populist reaction, and of tech backlash — not to mention the oh-so-convenient target Big Tech offers, Google and Facebook in particular, but also Apple, Amazon, and Twitter — these companies know they have to give in, at least a little.

So they act as any intelligent profit-maximizing corporations would do: calculate how much they can “voluntarily” give in order to stave off more draconian actions, whether regulatory, antitrust, or tax-based.

I asked Levien if the Times’ ability to step away from Apple News was unique, given its digital success and position in the news marketplace. Her answer was circumspect.

“I would say many publishers’ businesses look different, from one another and from ours. So I’m not going to speak for other publishers,” she said. “What I would say though, is I do think that the economics for any publisher should be such that they can support the work, the extensive work of all the original, independent journalists.

“Our investment in journalism is only going up. It will go up this year — even this year, it’s only going up. We are still hiring engineers and data scientists and product managers and product designers, in relatively large number.”

(Indeed, it currently lists 128 U.S.-based job openings, including for 20 editors, 17 in audio, 10 reporters, 7 data analysts, and more than a dozen developers.)

“Even in a year where our ad business is under as much pressure as it is. So, the thing that we are trying to do is going to require constant investment. And at The New York Times, in good times and in harder times, the first dollar goes to the journalism in the investment.”

Many different metrics count in the digital news business — but all of them are built on the foundation of large volumes of high-quality original news reporting and analysis. That’s the key metric: How many journalists and people with associated skill sets in product and audience can a news organization support? And how does each and every platform deal support that — or not?

POSTED     June 29, 2020, 2 p.m.
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