Making sense of the aggregator maze

When Apple launched its latest operating system – iOS 9 – the preinstalled inner workings of all Apple devices came with the addition of the Apple News application. To say that many people serious about news were looking forward to the arrival of the app is an understatement. First demonstrated at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June last year, the expectation was created that Apple News would be an alternative one-stop shop that would deliver the articles you really want to read in “a beautiful and uncluttered format, while respecting your privacy”.

Maze ()

The need for investing in such an app was obvious: a quarter of the top 20 apps in the news category on both the United States’ Google Play store and Apple’s own App store were news aggregator apps, according to the International News Media Association (INMA).

The increase in popularity of aggregator apps come at a time where people are finding it both convenient and time saving when third party apps assist in finding and curating material tailored to their appetites from worldwide news sources. In the past five year or so apps like Flipboard and Yahoo News Digest were successful in offering a relatively user friendly experience delivering a uniform design of curated content all in one place on your mobile. But none of them – including NewsBlur, Nuzzel or Buzzfeed News – were perfect. But many people believed Apple News would be. 

Perhaps that’s the main reason why so many have been underwhelmed by Apple News. The most common criticism raised against News is that anybody who has used Flipboard before could not help feeling that Apple News was a pretty good copy of just that – Flipboard. Tech junkies – muck like journalists despise plagiarism – have an acute dislike in copies dressed up as an innovation. Indeed, it was so obvious, that post-launch named Apple News a ‘Flipboard clone’.

The upside is that Flipboard reacted swiftly to the arrival of Apple News by introducing a system that allows users to rate stories. By doing so they can adjust the mix of their news feed. This in itself is not new. The rating system emulates the Facebook-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down method to rate each story they read. In theory this would allow the app to maintain relevance keeping the preferences of individual users in mind. In other words, the app would ‘learn’ from you and ultimately, says Flipboard, the preferences received “inform the entire Flipboard ecosystem, strengthening the experience for all readers”. 

Apple News does not benefit from such a rating system. It has a “For You” section supposedly pulling in stories from the topics and publications you enter as your personal favourites when you start your user experience. This simply does not work. No matter which algorithms are at work, the ghost in the machine is not learning fast enough. Truth be told, a couple of human curators on each topic would have done a better job, which goes against the point of having the app in the first place. 

Despite criticism, the arrival of Apple News has placed renewed emphasis on the development of aggregators. No matter the flaws, aggregator apps will not disappear, despite many publishers despising them. Yes, it is disruptive if apps create a path to publisher websites they do not understand or control. This – of course – first started with social media and now aggregator apps have intensified this.

Visitors entering publication websites via their home-page have dropped off so dramatically that many publishers are uncertain how to deal with it. They believe they are losing front-page readers and advertising revenue from ads destined for those pages. On top of this the control to their potential traffic is handed to third party distributors. This creates an even more complicated advertising maze in an already murky environment.

Syndication and licensing specialists like Joanna Alexandre at The Economist say the aggregation conundrum creates interesting strategic challenges and opportunities. Just as the route to market for the consumer has changed, so too it has for publishers and with it the ways to monetise their content. Publishers are selecting content from a variety of different sources and will be forced to look for a multitude of smaller agreements. The days of large and exclusive monetising relationships are over.

Importantly, one shoe will not fit all. Every deal will have to be tailor made because every piece of content was not created equal. “The Economist copy offers comment and analysis and we believe our offering is of more value,” says Alexandre. What we are likely to see is individual and complex distribution and monetisation deals fit for purpose.

Nobody really fully understands where advertising – native or conventional – will eventually fit into this complex maze of news distribution. But what is certain is that at some stage of the distribution network, money will have to change hands for the distribution of content to remain sustainable. The challenge for publishers is to ensure the buck stops with them.

More like this

The rise of mobile news is not through free aggregator apps

Apple News app is off to a rocky start

Apple plans to offer subscription content through News app

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x