Apple’s Gift to Publishers  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Apple’s Gift to Publishers   

The Newsstand feature on iOS 5 iPhones and iPads is enticing readers to subscribe. Mon., December 5, 2011

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


When Apple released its new iOS 5 operating system in October, it included a new way to access and organize newspaper and magazine apps. The new feature, called Newsstand,turned out to be a powerful nudge to consumers. To publishers, it was a case study in the tactics of content discovery.

Newsstand is a preinstalled folder on the home screen of iOS 5 iPhones and iPads that displays a user's news apps within a virtual bookcase. Users browse the special Newsstand section of iTunes to stock their shelves with free and subscription publications. Publishers must enable their apps for Newsstand publication in order to be included in the iTunes section.

The buzz preceding Newsstand's launch was tempered with caution. Publishers were still sore over Apple's move in February to force them to use Apple's subscription platform, with its 30 percent revenue share, for all subscription content delivered through iOS apps. The prospect of a newsstand controlled by Apple did not sit well with those who were already suspicious of the company's intentions.

Those concerns were pushed aside — if only temporarily — by Newsstand's rocket-like trajectory when it finally launched in mid-October. In the initial days after the iOS 5 release, Newsstand publishers reported exponential increases in app downloads and significant growth in subscriptions. While individual app download data are not distributed by Apple, a few publishers shared theirs with media outlets:

• A spokesperson for the New York Times told Poynter.org that the NYTimes.com iPhone app was downloaded 1.8 million times in the week Newsstand launched, a dizzying leap from 21,000 downloads the prior week. The iPad version was downloaded 189,000 times, a sevenfold increase over the prior week.

• In the same Poynter.org article, National Geographic reported a fivefold acceleration of app subscription growth during that first week.

• Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents and Fitness also saw significant jumps in paid subscription sales in the early days of Newsstand, according to AdWeek.

• News Corp.'s iPad-only publication, the Daily, vied for first place with National Geographic for gross revenue generated in the Newsstand section. That news was a bright spot for the struggling Murdoch publication, whose inauspicious first eight months had led observers to predict its demise.

Newsstand's effectiveness in driving app downloads and paid subscriptions was a bit of a surprise. The concept seemed convenient, but hardly revolutionary. And Newsstand is only available to people who've purchased iOS 5 devices or upgraded their older iPhones and iPads. How could that one change make such a dramatic impact?

The answer, according to the digital mavens who've been studying Newsstand, can be explained in one word: discovery. Through a series of choices in the way Newsstand is designed, Apple encourages a lot more people to discover and download news apps.

First, the Newsstand icon is planted on the home screen of every iOS 5 user. Second, the design of the Newsstand interface and icon — a bookshelf that sits naked until apps are added — calls out to the user to fill the empty space. Unlike the static icons used for most apps, the Newsstand icon is dynamic, meaning that it will display miniature covers of the publications waiting to be read. Third, it's easier to find news apps within Newsstand.

Finally, Newsstand's automatic update feature means that fresh content will be fetched daily, ready for quick access, online or offline.

While publishers anticipated the benefits of better organization and automatic downloads, tech writers seem to agree that Newsstand's magic ingredients are its dynamic icon and bookshelf display. Those empty shelves could be the push many consumers need to go forth and discover news apps.

The question is whether the Newsstand effect will wear off at some point, and whether the apps downloaded during October's bender will languish on the shelves. The fact that many people committed to paid subscriptions suggests more than a passing fancy, but others may neglect the apps they downloaded in those euphoric early days.

Further, October's windfall won't resolve Apple's frenemy status with the media. Suspicion over Apple's grabbiness with revenue and user information remains, and concerns about the company's power to marginalize some news sources may be heightened with the advent of Newsstand. Broadcast apps apparently are not welcome, for example.

All of that said, let's appreciate the underlying lesson of Newsstand's success: There appears to be a latent audience out there — apparently a large audience, hopefully a young one — that will sample news sources, given the right circumstances. Sometimes discovery occurs naturally. Other times, a well-placed nudge can go a long way.

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