A critical evaluation of Apple News

Research conducted into the effectiveness of Apple News as a platform for distribution submitted as coursework for a module on online journalism at Birmingham City University.


I was interviewed as part of a discussion into the best tips on publishing to social media by lecturer Paul Bradshaw, alongside Nuria Riquelme and Lívia Vieira, at Birmingham City University.


How effective is the iOS application as a platform for publishers to distribute their content?

On the 8th June 2015, Apple unveiled “an all-new News app delivering the best news reading experience on any mobile device” (Apple, 2015). The application is ‘a personalised newsfeed aggregator for digital media’, designed “as a solution to a fragmented news reading experience generated by hopping between apps or mobile sites” (Williams, 2015). Launched in stages between September and October 2015 (Rossignol, 2015), the application allows its users to select the topics, magazines, newspapers and websites which appeal to them and filter them into a favourites section.

In Apple’s first earnings call since the application launched, ‘Tim Cook revealed the first numbers for its Apple News service saying that the app has around 40 million users’ (Kahn, 2015). By the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2016 in June, this had increased to over 60 million active monthly users, “so it only makes sense that some additional attention was given to the popular app” (Moon, 2016).

A year since its launch, “the traffic picture is improving for publishers on Apple News, but news organisations still have some big hangups when it comes to measurement and monetisation” (Bilton, 2016). Some of this hesitation could be answered by a look back to January 2016, when Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of internet software and services, said “our numbers are lower than reality…we don’t know what the right number is” (Cue, cited in McCormick, 2016). It meant convincing big publications, that the app would be vital for publication readership, would be difficult. Moses (2015) quoted one publisher off the record saying “the traffic is underwhelming”, adding that ‘under 1 million views a month was not worth it considering the work involved to train staff to prepare the content for the app’. An independent publisher, Michael Kummer, found the ‘platform hadn’t completely convinced him’, and said “I still open the WSJ app more often than I do the Apple News app” (Kummer, 2016).

However, “not all publishers are unhappy” (Moses, 2015), Cory Haik, executive director of emerging news products for the Washington Post, said he is “pleased with how our content feels in Apple News and excited that it’s reaching new audiences” (Haik, cited in Moses, 2015). At this point, the app was still in its early days, and there was general recognition that consumer habits can take time to change.

There are four main methods of publishing articles on Apple News. The first is to “create articles in the Apple News Format right in News Publisher [on iCloud]” where they are “automatically formatted for viewing on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.” Alternately, the Apple News Format can be made through the News Preview application with JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format. The third method is to “create articles in a content management system (CMS) that’s connected to News Publisher via the Apple News API” (Apple, no date: a). The fourth, and most simplistic method, is to link the channel to an RSS feed from a website.

In order to understand the application in more detail from a publisher point-of-view, two channels were established, published to, and analysed. They were:

  1. Second Page News: (Appendix 1, 1.1, and 1.2) a personal experimental blog with daily music reviews scheduled in advance for publication at 10am. Content was initially published via RSS, before using a content management system (CMS: website based on org) linked via API.
  2. Birmingham Eastside: (Appendix 2, and 2.1) a hyperlocal news website for the local Birmingham area. Content was published from the Apple News Publisher through the iCloud website on a desktop web browser in the Apple News Format.

My experiment with Second Page News began in January 2016, with an article titled Music Review: ‘Jealous of the Angels’ by Jenn Bostic (Appendix 3). The article was published through an RSS feed taken from the primary website. On the News app, the article had a headline and the first few preview characters from the original post on the website. A link then asks you to ‘read full story’ and an arrow, indicating the user to swipe up from the bottom of the screen, takes the user to the web page hosting the article through a built-in web browser.

RSS articles come with a set of unattractive limitations for publishers too: “Content publishers hate on it because they can’t do user tracking with it…they’d much prefer it if you used their websites or apps, where they can study you like a bug” (Kare_kano, cited in heywouldjablowme, 2016). RSS does not allow analytic support, and publishers would have to rely on readers linking through to the original article on their website in order to gain any kind of understanding of what levels of traffic they were receiving. For this analysis of Apple News, the lack of data on those RSS articles makes it impossible to compare these with those articles later published in the Apple News Format.

The first article published on the Second Page News channel in the Apple News Format was on the 28th March 2016, with an article titled Music Review: ‘Best Intentions’ by We Are The In Crowd (Appendix 4). Unlike the previous articles published via RSS, “Apple News Format articles gain access to interesting analytics that normal RSS-based publishers cannot receive. This includes information like unique viewers, average active time spent reading and number of shares on social media” (Mayo, 2016).

The unique viewers for this article is only two, with a total view count of 12. The article on Second Page News with the highest number of unique viewers is Music Review: ‘Every Kingdom’ by Ben Howard (Appendix 5) reaching over two-hundred. Its total view count reached 290 (Appendix 5.1), and the only difference between these posts were the day they were published. The first was published on a Wednesday morning, whereas the second was on the following Sunday. Two things that currently can’t be tested, that would be useful to determine the difference between articles like this, is the time viewers most engage with the article and where they were directed from. It would be interesting to see what the best times to publish are in order to increase views, and increase traffic to a website, but also to see whether articles are being searched for (based on topic, or key words) or found by other means.

It would also be useful to understand whether article layout and appearance makes a difference to published content: since all of the articles published on Second Page news are in the same design and layout, it isn’t possible to see whether elements like featured images or subtitles make any difference to readership.

But one thing is for sure, in comparison to the earlier RSS articles, the Apple News Format is “highly designed” (Evans, 2016), ‘enabling publishers to create dynamic, animated multimedia content’ (Dilger, 2015). The difference in design between the two formats is noticeable immediately. Lee Peterson, a technology writer, tweeted that he ‘was exporting articles in Apple News’ because they “look much better” (Peterson, 2016).

Articles can be easily compared across two different device types. Music Reviews: ‘Bright Idea’ by Orson (Appendix 6) on Second Page News looks distinctively different on the iPad application than it does on the iPhone, and some users find the larger layout more attractive (Wagner, 2016). On the iPad application (Appendix 6.1), the cover photo appears above the headline full width. Upon opening the article, the embedded image is partially transparent, becoming fully visible once the user scrolls up. Like the original article on the website, the image sits on the right hand side with the text wrapped to the left. On iPhone (Appendix 6.2), the embedded image is the same width of the text with centre alignment. For this particular article, there is no body text on the iPhone display when the article is first loaded – the user has to scroll to read, whereas the iPad is large enough to incorporate the embedded image in its original alignment with text wrap alongside it.

But to learn more about how changing the style of articles affects its readership, I experimented more with different layouts on the Birmingham Eastside channel. The first article published on this channel was Plans submitted to Birmingham City Council for metro expansion into Eastside (Appendix 7): it was mostly plain text with some pull quotes and a cover photo. This article reached 12 unique viewers in the first two months of being published. The most viewed article Steve McCabe MP warns against “game show democracy” after Trump wins US election (Appendix 9) reached over 500 unique viewers in its first week. The format of the articles was the same; plain text with some pull quotes, and a cover photo. The only major difference was subject: Trump’s election win was a trending story worldwide, and this article featured his name in the title and a portrait of him as the cover photo. The analytics for this article also show an average active time (average time readers spend on the article) of 29 seconds: a minute shorter than the top article in this metric. #USvotes16 – Who stands for what on social issues (Appendix 8) is a plain text article with no images, yet had an average reading time of nearly a minute and a half. Against similarly laid-out articles, there doesn’t appear to be any correlation in reading time, and those articles with the higher reader time have no significant similarities in their layout or use of images.

But writing these articles for Apple News from the iCloud News Publisher app does bring limitations: I was unable to align photos to a particular side, or justify text.

These kinds of changes are ones to be made with page design from a CMS, like Second Page News, or through the Apple News Format in JSON with the various codes outlined in the Developer support pages (Apple, 2016: b), although experimentations for this essay have been limited as JSON requires a platform to publish – something unavailable during these practices. To test some of the customisations possible in JSON, I made a file with the information from the Music Reviews: ‘Bright Idea’ by Orson article published to Second Page News. In the Xcode simulator, I was able to preview some of the code, as an article, in both the application for iPad and iPhone. Very quickly, it was possible to see some basic text formatting underneath an image without a caption (Appendix 19), but with the addition of line breaks, a change of font and font colour, the design of the article appeared more attractive (Appendix 20, and 20.1).

As far as converting Apple News readers to website hits, “Apple News is a huge source of traffic” says Timothy Huneycutt (2016: a), who shares an embedded link at the end of his Apple News articles to direct traffic to his website (Huneycutt, 2016: b). In the same maner, I embedded a link to articles published on Birmingham Eastside’s channel, however not seen any reference to Apple News in the referrers section in Birmingham Eastside’s analytics page (Appendix 12).

Looking further afield than at the channels for Second Page News and Birmingham Eastside, larger news organisations have commented on their own readership figures. After the WWDC 2016 introduced some new features to the application, “including support for breaking-news alerts, some publishers say they have noticed a distinct pickup in traffic” (Ingram: 2016). CNN’s chief product officer, Alex Wellen, said that “CNN had seen steady traffic growth for most of the year” (Wellen, cited in Bilton: 2016). And with those updates, the CNN channel reportedly brought in 36.5 million unique readers in September 2016, increasing from only 5 million the month before. Wellen added that ‘CNN’s notifications reached 188,000 on its first day of the relaunch, but “only a few weeks later, that number increased to 3.7 million”. Bilton also reports that Bloomberg benefitted from the update, with a ‘400% increase in unique viewers’ and thanked “a combination of inclusion in the Apple News ‘Top Stories’ (Appendix 17) section and interest in its breaking news notifications” (Bilton: 2016). Push notifications (Appendix 18) are only available to ‘select partners’ and “is a feature not widely available to publishers” (Apple, 2016: b) so it has not been possible to test whether these notifications would impact either Second Page News or Birmingham Eastside’s readership.

In summary, establishing the effectiveness of publishing to Apple News requires much more experimentation. In my experience, the use of featured image and key words in the title make some difference in drawing in readers, but retaining them and driving traffic to websites is something that needs to be understood further. It would be useful to see these kind of analytics available to publishers, as well as those for the times of day that readers engage with articles. As a standalone platform, Apple News appears to work very well for the top publishers, but for all the rest, it isn’t enough to drive readership. “BuzzFeed, Vice, Facebook Live, Apple News, podcasts, messaging apps and Snapchat are merely a handful of ways that people now receive the news, whether that be international events of note or the latest celebrity updates and gossip” (Follows, 2016). As Katz states, “Apple News can’t be your only mobile monetisation tool. It can be one of them” (2016).

CNN and Bloomberg have proven that tailored use of Apple News format will drive high readership (Bilton, 2016), and independent publishers like Peterson and Wagner understand that the format can create the “highly desired” (Evans, 2016) and “dynamic” (Dilger, 2015) content the application was designed for.

Bibliography.

Appendix.

  • [Appendix 1] Second Page News. [website] Available at: https://apple.news/TYvZYZ3HCQSykr7De8wZNOg
    • [Appendix 1.1] Screenshot of Second Page News channel with articles in Apple News Format on iPad application. [screenshot]
    • [Appendix 1.2] Screenshot of Second Page News channel with articles from RSS on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 2] Birmingham Eastside. [website] Available at: https://apple.news/TQSlkDZfmSoWeo_a5JZsDWw
    • [Appendix 2.1] Screenshot of Birmingham Eastside channel with articles in Apple News Format on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 3] Gould, S. (no date). Music Review: ‘Jealous of the Angels’ by Jenn Bostic, Second Page News. [online article] Available from: https://apple.news/A4mejpprSMgS2UvJsCM3Idg
  • [Appendix 4] Gould, S. (2016: a). Music Review: ‘Best Intentions’ by We Are The In Crowd, Second Page News. [online article] Available from: https://apple.news/AJ-PP0w6ASH23PO7XCBSSyQ
  • [Appendix 5] Gould, S. (2016: b). Music Review: ‘Every Kingdom’ by Ben Howard, Second Page News. [online article] Available from: https://apple.news/Aob9Kc0nmQaaPPgA9OWKoRw
    • [Appendix 5.1] Second Page News. Ben Howard analytics on iCloud News Publisher. [screenshot].
  • [Appendix 6] Gould, S. (2016: c). Music Review: ‘Bright Idea’ by Orson, Second Page News. [online article] Available from: https://apple.news/AGtE35SFkQkyOWZ79K4ZuSw
    • [Appendix 6.1] Screenshot of “Music Review: ‘Bright Idea’ by Orson” article on iPad application. [screenshot]
    • [Appendix 6.2] Screenshot of “Music Review: ‘Bright Idea’ by Orson” article on iPhone application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 7] Sorrentino, A. (2016: a). Plans submitted to Birmingham City Council for metro expansion into Eastside, Birmingham Eastside. [online article] Available from: https://apple.news/Aa69qx7PpQ6yWhcnhpEIQ1w
  • [Appendix 8] Sorrentino, A. (2016: b). #USvotes16 – Who stands for what on social issues, Birmingham Eastside. [online article] Available at: https://apple.news/Aogbf6QkLQwmkgf76dWyrEA
  • [Appendix 9] Leeford, D. (2016). Steve McCabe MP warns against “game show democracy” after Trump wins US election, Birmingham Eastside. [online article] Available at: https://apple.news/ACwIyeUkNRZeB2ihh5VTv7w
  • [Appendix 10] Kawan, A. (2016). Cereal Killer Café opens in Birmingham, Birmingham Eastside. [online article] Available at: https://apple.news/AOwbHJdeAQXuv76_ZKwaEra
    • [Appendix 10.1] Screenshot of “Cereal Killer Café opens in Birmingham” article on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 11] Screenshot of Birmingham Eastside analytics in iCloud News Publisher. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 12] Birmingham Eastside. Site Statistics: Referrers for 30 days ending 2016-11-21 (Summarized). [website] Available at: http://birminghameastside.com/wp-admin/admin.php?page=stats&view=referrers&summarize&numdays=30
  • [Appendix 13] Screenshot of Apple News Editors’ Picks on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 14] Screenshot of Apple News Featured Stories on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 15] Screenshot of Apple News Explore tab on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 16] Screenshot of Apple News Trending Stories on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 17] Screenshot of Apple New Top Stories on iPad application. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 18] Screenshot of push notification received from channel WIRED alerting the user that notifications are not available for the channel. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 19] Screenshot of Xcode simulator for iPad and iPhone previewing an article written in JSON. [screenshot]
  • [Appendix 20] Screenshot of Xcode and updated previews for an article written in JSON for iPad and iPhone. [screenshot]
    • [Appendix 20.1] Screenshot of Xcode JSON code used to write articles for iPad and iPhone. [screenshot]

Image Attachments.

 

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s