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The era of frenemies: Can media leaders re-define their relationship with Apple?

The buzz around Apple killing its Newsstand in favour of Apple News may be waning, but its residual effects on the publishing industry could have some serious implications if publishers don’t start reading between the headlines.

The good news

Few would argue that the death of Newsstand was long overdue and should be celebrated by publishers. Conceptually it was a great idea, but the implementation was deeply flawed. It not only handcuffed publishers within a content prison very few consumers cared to venture into, it didn’t give publishers the freedom to remove their apps once they were incarcerated.

The icon updates and background downloads were good ideas. But like trees falling in a forest, if no one goes there to see them, do they actually exist?

I once read that Newsstand was where apps went to die. With Apple News, publishers have an opportunity to resurrect those cadavers and start to market their content through the newest aggregated platform, where frictionless discovery of content based on readers’ interests offers more opportunities to engage with users to grow audience and revenues.

Apple News could be the game changer this industry needs to propel it into the 21st century. But with every silver lining comes a cloud.

The “Say what!” news

No sooner had the announcement of the aggregated app hit the newswire that Apple started dictating terms of engagement that made the Apple Tax terrors of 2010 pale by comparison.

In what can only be described as the epitome of hubris, Apple decreed to publishers via e-mail that unless they specifically opted out of Apple News, they were in – and not just for a penny, but a full pound!

“You agree to let us use, display, store, and reproduce the content in your RSS feeds including placing advertising next to or near your content without compensation to you. Don’t worry, we will not put advertising inside your content without your permission.

“You confirm that you have all necessary rights to publish your RSS content, and allow Apple to use it for News as we set forth here. You will be responsible for any payments that might be due to any contributors or other third parties for the creation and use of your RSS content.

“If we receive a legal claim about your RSS content, we will tell you so that you can resolve the issue, including indemnifying Apple if Apple is included in the claim.

“You can remove your RSS feed whenever you want by opting out or changing your settings in News Publisher.”

So Apple will use, display, store, and reproduce content from publishers’ RSS feeds, including placing advertising next to or near their content, without compensating the publishers.

The industry has been jumping all over Google for sharing snippets of stories in Google News with sidebar ads for years. How is what Apple’s doing any different?

The news that didn’t make the news

Ad blocking has been around for a number of years and while it’s been a nuisance for publishers and advertisers, it’s quickly becoming mainstream as browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus from Eyeo continue to gain popularity with the growing millennial market.

According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2015, between one-third and one-half of online news users in the United States and United Kingdom use ad blocking software.

So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Apple decided to offer its own ad blocking extensions to Safari for iOS9. What did surprise many was that this important news stayed buried in App Developer documentation and never made it into the keynote announcements in June.

Growing up, many of us have had parents or teachers preach, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” What Apple says isn’t what nightmares are made of; it’s what they’re selectively silent about that keeps us awake.

The implications of ad blocking in Safari on the surface is worrisome, but below the murky waters lurks a threat that can’t be ignored.

Taking a look at where advertising is going; it’s clear that mobile is where the money is.

And who owns the mobile browsing market? Clearly it’s a two-gorilla race, with Apple leading the pack.

And with Safari accounting for more than half of U.S. mobile and tablet usage, ad blocking on Safari won’t be just another annoyance, it could be a major blow to the likes of Google, which clearly dominates the U.S. search market.

Today, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are paying big bucks to AdBlock Plus to unblock their ads on Web sites. Imagine what they’ll be paying Apple once it locks up its browser and demands “pay to stay whitelisted” fees to iAd competitors.

One can’t help but wonder …

Is Safari ad blocking just the first step in Apple’s road to monopolising ad revenues on all iOS devices?

Will iAds be the only game in town for publishers that want to avoid Apple’s unblocking charges in Safari?

How soon will those barriers be raised around news apps that compete with Apple News?

And what does it mean to publishers looking to capitalise on the cross-platform capabilities of HTML5 and reduce the control Apple and other manufacturers have on their pricing, content standards, and user data? 

Sure, they can still develop Web apps to run in Safari. But the associated ad revenues served up by non-iAD networks will be subject to the whims and wants of one who has a notorious reputation for reaping the rewards of what publishers sow.

To app or not to app won’t be a choice on iPhones and iPads. If Apple lives up to its reputation, publishers will either have to live in Apple News or suffer the consequences of going it alone. 

Because with Apple, it’s not about the content; it’s about control.

The future of news

Until now, Apple has always focused on creating the best possible UI/UX experiences on phones, players, and tablets for its users, and providing a platform for app developers and content providers to serve its mobile audiences. The Apple/publisher partnership wasn’t always easy, but it wasn’t competitive — until now.

With the hiring of journalists and editors to “curate” publishers’ content for Apple News, Apple appears to be replicating Netflix – start as an aggregator of other people’s content, and then make a move into original programming that competes directly with its publishing partners.

In Ross Dawson’s keynote at this year’s INMA World Congress, the futurist said that we are entering the dawn of a new era for news. He invited publishers to use their exceptional capabilities and establish new relevant ones to create the future of news.

The opportunities to prosper in this new era are abundant, which is why Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others are diving in with all hands and feet. Now more than ever before, publishers must work together and be bold to keep the industry from falling into the hands of those who aren’t just looking to take a bite out of their business; they’re looking to eat their whole lunch.

Taylor Swift made headlines last month when the pop star forced Apple to change how it will compensate artists in its new music-streaming service. Her boldness didn’t just help line her pockets, but those of all the struggling independents that don’t have the resources or power to stand up to the Jolly Green Giant.

It’s time for the leaders in our industry to work together, be bold, and fight for the future of news — not just for themselves, but for the small, niche, and local publishers that can’t afford the table stakes to get into the game. Watching, waiting, and wondering what’s next won’t just be costly. It could potentially topple the industry as we know it like a house of cards.

About Nikolay Malyarov

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