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Apple is bringing in NBCUniversal to sell ads in Apple News

Reading news on a smartphone
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Apple is bringing in help to boost its News app.

Apple is going to hand over ad sales for the app to Comcast's NBCUniversal* in an exclusive deal that starts in January.

Publishers who put content on the app can still sell their own ads and will keep 100 percent of the revenue from any ads they sell. The new deal means that NBCUniversal, instead of Apple, will sell any remaining ad inventory.

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As before, publishers will keep 70 percent of those sales. In a note to her staff, NBCUniversal sales boss Linda Yaccarino said her organization would create a dedicated sales group for the app.

Apple News underwhelmed publishers and advertisers when it launched in 2015, and it certainly hasn't gotten the focus that similar efforts, like Facebook's Instant Articles or Google's AMP program, have received.

But anecdotal reports indicate that the app, which comes pre-installed on Apple's mobile devices, is getting more use now that Apple features it more prominently in its newest iOS 10 software.

Apple won't comment on detailed usage numbers, but says the app now has 70 million unique users.

The sales deal is also a reminder that Apple, unlike most of its tech rivals, really doesn't love the business of selling ads itself.

Apple had previously used its iAd app ad network to backfill unsold inventory for Apple News. But earlier this year Apple shut down iAd, which had never taken off.

And in general, after a brief flirtation with the ad business, Apple has basically conceded that it makes sense for other people to do, but not for Apple. CEO Tim Cook has even used Apple's lack of an ad business as a tool to criticize ad-based competitors like Google.

But Apple still isn't ad-free. This fall it started selling search-based app advertising in its App Store. And if it gets more serious about breaking into the TV business, it will certainly have to grapple with ads there, since they fuel that industry.

* NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.