I don’t have any algorithms to tell me what you enjoy reading, but here’s a story you may like: It used to be a joy to read magazines.
If you subscribed, they’d arrive at your home, distracting you from the more serious mail that darkened your doorstep. Or picked up at a newsstand, magazines would make for delightful lunch dates or travel companions. Sure, they killed trees and caused clutter, but their mere physical existence—not to mention their delights inside—was reassuring and enlightening.
“A magazine,” Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner once said, “is an old friend.”
If you value that romantic notion of reading, please stop reading this review right now and subscribe to some new magazines the old fashioned way. But if you’re wondering if you should subscribe to Apple News Plus to gain access to its more than 300 titles for just $9.99 per month, well, prepare to be disappointed in your “friends.”
Announced in a flurry of fanfare at a star-studded Apple event last month, Apple News Plus is the iPhone maker’s newest plan for monetizing the publishing industry.
The offspring of Apple News (launched in 2015 as the company’s answer to Flipboard) and Texture (a Netflix-for-magazines startup that Apple bought in March 2018), Apple News Plus is also a paid service that exists inside Apple’s free-to-use news app and gives subscribers access to scores of magazines as well as newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
With the value proposition of all-you-can-read news, Apple News Plus is a winner. Texture, which I had subscribed to since its launch as Next Issue in 2012, was a great service for magazine readers. However, brought into the fold of Apple News, its new incarnation is an inconsistent, unsightly mess. It feels like a beta project, despite that Apple’s subscription magazine efforts date back to 2011.
Apple News Plus is available on the Apple News app on both iOS and Mac OS, which means readers can enjoy its firehose of news on iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Yet while Apple typically excels at syncing its data between devices via iCloud, this new product seems to shun syncing.
So, if you add a magazine on your iPad, the publication curiously does not show up in your feed on your iPhone. If you’re the type of reader that likes to get news on your phone but relax with your iPad, this a feature. (You may want to stay current with Bloomberg Businessweek on your phone during your commute, but kick back on the weekend with Bon Appétit on your iPad, for example.) But not having the option to choose syncing, seems like a pretty glaring flaw.
Another step back for Apple News Plus is how it renders magazines. In Texture and Next Issue, magazines were in PDF formats, with scroll bars across the bottom of the screen that allowed you to effectively “thumb” through an issue. However, that’s not so much the case with Apple News Plus. At least not in every magazine.
Instead, many magazines seem to be completely re-designed for the Apple News app, coded using some sort of tool that allows publishers to extract the content and send it off to Apple for importing into the app. No doubt generating smaller-sized files than large, image-intensive PDFs, this method of magazine production makes it quick and easy for readers to download issues in Apple News Plus. But it also strips the publications of much of the pain-staking design that makes magazines true works of art.
Take, for instance, Entertainment Weekly‘s regular back page fixture “The Bullseye.” With a target on the worst in pop culture each week, this page is typically rich in stock images of celebrities struck by arrows while doing dumb things. The silhouetted photos are all set in concentric circles made to look like—you guessed it—a bullseye.
Well, that’s the way it looks in the print magazine. It even looks like that on Texture, which Apple hasn’t shuttered yet. On Apple News Plus, “The Bullseye” is laid out like an Instagram feed, requiring readers to scroll down to read each bite-size, snarky celeb shout-out. It’s a perfect example of how off-target is Apple’s repackaging of the news.
“Packaging” is a regular topic among magazine editors. Typically it describes how editorial and art departments work together on disparate elements to create the whole story. A feature package could be a 5,000-word story that contains multiple sidebars, original photos, illustrations, and layouts to help tell a complex story, for instance.
In Apple News Plus—at least in its early stages—those rich elements feel flattened into a long, boring scroll similar to a social media news feed. The difference between these two approaches to packaging is equivalent to sitting with an “old friend” who tells you a story (that would be a print or PDF magazine) or reading it on her Facebook feed (Apple News Plus’s way). Sure, ultimately you get the same story, but it’s hardly as rich as it should be.
And magazines are more than a stack of packages. Each issue is a collection of pieces that interplay with each other. There are smaller stories next to longer ones, Q&As interspersed with profiles, experiential articles opposite opinion pieces, a front-of-book, and back-of-book sandwiching the feature well.
All these pieces hopefully construct an enjoyable reading experience optimized by experienced, professional, human editors. (That word is italicized because it seems to be a feature tech companies, including Apple, have been promoting lately. Dear reader, magazines have had humans on staff for hundreds of years. Why do tech companies’ editors need to edit magazines’ editors? Trust us—we can handle this.)
Still, Apple News Plus does let readers “flip” (or swipe) right-to-left through magazines to see all this effort, but it’s not the same. Apple’s persistent march away from skeuomorphic design has robbed the Apple News Plus readers of utility; the sharp headline on a short front-of-book piece won’t grab your attention if you don’t see it while you’re being spring-boarded to the story Apple News promoted on its “Today” tab. Your interests won’t expand. You won’t grow and learn something new and surprising. In essence, you won’t really enjoy the magazine as you should.
That’s because, at the heart of the Apple News app, there’s a single story mentality, similar to how Apple began dominating music by selling 99-cent tracks. But instead of making readers pay per-story (something publishers never figured out), online news is starting to make the jump from free to paid. Paywalls are emerging, and ahead of that, Apple News Plus is disassembling magazines, in its attempt to turn journalism into the next music industry.
Remember when recording artists used to put out great albums? They now hustle for smashes on the singles charts. Likewise with Apple News, publishers are being pushed into a quick-hit market.
Still, Apple’s disaggregation of the news does serve a purpose for readers. The free-to-read Apple News app lets users follow “Channels & Topics” (why it’s not “Publications & Topics” eludes me), which means in addition to subscribing to newspapers and magazines, you can also read across the media on subjects as diverse as AARP and ZZ Top.
While this is a great service to readers, it’s also indiscriminate, chopping up newspapers and magazines for parts.
For instance, when you tap on the News+ tab and select a story about smart home gear, it will pull you right into the middle of an issue of WIRED—only showing you a small version of the magazine’s cover, and ignoring all the other stories that would have otherwise appeared around it. Then, when you’re finished with reading that story, there’s nowhere to go. It’s back into the sidebar full of all the other subjects and publications that may interest you.
Equating it to iTunes, the song is over.
If, as Hefner said, a magazine is truly an old friend, what does that make Apple News Plus? For publishers and readers hoping to rekindle their relationships, it seems to be some matchmaker. But it’s got to make better connections than this.