An app called News for iOS 9 replaces Newsstand as the place Apple wants mainstream periodicals—plus websites and every other kind of publisher—to place stories and articles, and Apple showed off a sneak peek during Monday’s WWDC keynote. According to messages from developers who have installed iOS 9, the Newsstand quasi-folder turns into a regular folder, and Newsstand apps now have a standard, static iOS icon rather than a custom issue-cover one. These apps can be dragged to the home screen like any other, and the converted folder may be deleted.
Newsstand, first introduced in iOS 6 with unique features for publishers, including automatic background downloading and updatable cover images, has languished since iOS 7. With that release, Apple gave all developers access to some features and removed the preview on the Newsstand icon. (Side note: I actually edited and then owned a Newsstand publication from 2012 to 2014, so I know first hand how this service affects publishers.)
Newsstand required custom app development for each publication or the adoption of a third-party iOS publishing platform, such as those offered by 29th Street Publishing, Richie, or TypeEngine. The News app does away with that, relying on interpreting existing websites’ HTML as well as a new markup specification called Apple News Format that publications (and conceivably blog platforms) will be able to produce from their content-management systems. Apple’s preliminary News app site provides scant detail so far about the format, but quite a bit of information about everything else.
Removing the necessity of unique or custom apps could spur more involvement by a broader base of publications and bring back some who previously opted out. The Financial Times is listed as a partner after having famously been an early rejecter, canceling its iOS app back in 2011 in favor of responsive web design that works in all browsers.
Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, said “Apple never shares what you’re reading with third parties.” However, that appears to mean a one-to-one connection: Apple notes on its News app site that publishers “get access to a rich suite of tools to measure user engagement with your content.” That should mean aggregated information will be available rather than individuals’ actions.
News closely resembles Flipboard, a long-running iOS app designed for a similar purpose: Taking a combination of existing content and sites selected by a user and combining it with algorithmic discovery of other articles of interest, while repackaging everything into a flowable format that works on a variety of devices.
iOS 9 users will pick news sources to add, which can be a mix of Apple partners and ordinary websites, but it can and will produce a selection of articles related to what you’re already looking at. Apple’s vice president of product marketing Susan Prescott (who joined Apple from Adobe in 2003) showed off partner periodicals during an on-stage demo of News during the keynote.
It’s unclear precisely how Apple will pick content from sites other than partners for its curated results. John Gruber’s Daring Fireball was mentioned during the demonstration, and Prescott said that through machine-learning algorithms, Apple had organized a million searchable topics, which would indicate a large starting point for websites.
Federighi said News will launch with a number of media companies and several dozen publications, including print/digital publications like GQ, Wired, the New York Times, Fortune, and the Economist, as well as born-digital outlets like Buzzfeed, Quartz, and the Verge, and cable networks with strong online components like ESPN and CNN. Condé Nast has 17 magazines committed, he said.
The New York Times will offer 30 news articles free daily through News. The Economist will regularly update a package of articles, charts, and videos selected specifically for the app. “We see this new app as an extension of our existing sampling strategy, which involves making a carefully chosen selection of our stories, charts and multimedia available free on social platforms, on our website and in our apps,” said Economist Deputy Editor Tom Standage.
The News app doesn’t integrate subscriptions or in-app purchases. Like an updated RSS reader, News will only show freely available content, although Apple allows publications to include ads and keep 100 percent of proceeds, as well as use its iAds platform and keep 70 percent of revenue.
This approach means that publications like the Times, the Financial Times, the Economist, and others that rely on subscription revenue for part or a majority of revenue will need to maintain native or web apps for full access, but can use the News app to push a subset of content to produce ad revenue and entice subscriptions. Media outlets that rely entirely on advertising can push everything to News as if it were just another kind of web browser.
The News app tracks closely initiatives at other digital giants to bring in professional reporting and timeliness, such as Facebook’s recently launched Instant Articles. Instant Articles was announced May 12 with some fanfare, but no new articles have appeared in the format for three weeks.
News launches initially in the U.S., UK, and Australia, bundled within iOS 9. This limitation may in part be based on its machine-learning algorithms, which are by nature language specific.