Apple News’s Radical Approach: Humans Over Machines - The New York Times
Apple has waded into the messy world of news with a service that is read regularly by roughly 90 million people. But while Google, Facebook and Twitter have come under intense scrutiny for their disproportionate — and sometimes harmful — influence over the spread of information, Apple has so far avoided controversy. One big reason is that while its Silicon Valley peers rely on machines and algorithms to pick headlines, Apple uses humans like Ms. Kern.
The former journalist has quietly become one of the most powerful figures in English-language media. The stories she and her deputies select for Apple News regularly receive more than a million visits each.
Their work has complicated the debate about whether Silicon Valley giants are media or technology companies. Google, Facebook and Twitter have long insisted they are tech entities and not arbiters of the truth. The chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and others have bet heavily on artificial intelligence to help them sort through false news and fact-based information. Yet Apple has unabashedly gone the other direction with its human-led approach, showing that a more media-like sensibility may be able to coexist within a technology company.
There are ambitious plans for the product. Apple lets publishers run ads in its app and it helps some sign up new subscribers, taking a 30 percent cut of the revenue. Soon, the company aims to bundle access to dozens of magazines in its app for a flat monthly fee, sort of like Netflix for news, according to people familiar with the plans, who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Apple also hopes to package access to a few daily-news publications, like The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal, into the app, the people said.
Apple’s executives grandly proclaim that they want to help save journalism. “There is this deep understanding that a thriving free press is critical for an informed public, and an informed public is critical for a functioning democracy, and that Apple News can play a part in that,” Ms. Kern said.
But there are early signs that Apple is not the industry’s savior. Many publishers have made little on ads in Apple News, and Apple’s 30 percent cut of subscriptions it helps sell does not help. Having experienced Google’s and Facebook’s disruption of their industry, many publications are wary of Apple, according to conversations with executives from nine news organizations, many of whom declined to comment on the record for fear of upsetting the trillion-dollar corporation. Some were optimistic that Apple could be a better partner than other tech giants, but were leery of making the company the portal to their readers.
The rise of Google and Facebook in news was partly driven by algorithms that provided enormous scale, enabling them to surface millions of articles from thousands of sources to their billions of users. The algorithms were largely designed to keep users engaged and clicking, meaning they tended to promote posts that drew clicks and shares, which often meant the sensational. That elevated fringe and partisan sites that produced intentionally misleading, highly partisan or downright false content.
(A Google spokeswoman said the company aimed to avoid misinformation by screening publishers before letting them into Google News. She added that Google this year began helping news organizations sell subscriptions. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company helps publishers reach more readers, earn ad revenue and sell subscriptions. She said Facebook’s algorithm recently decreased the visibility of pages that share clickbait.)
Into that environment came Apple. In late 2015, the iPhone maker released a free news app to match users with publications they liked. People selected their interests and favorite publications, and the app returned a feed of relevant stories.
The announcement attracted little fanfare. Three months later, Apple announced an unusual new feature: humans would pick the app’s top stories, not algorithms.
Not all of the stories in Apple News are handpicked. Algorithms still deliver stories based on which new sources or topics users have followed, such as sports, cars or entertainment. Algorithms also pick the five prominent “trending” stories below Ms. Kern’s team’s curated stories. Those items tend to focus on Mr. Trump or celebrities. Making the list on Oct. 2: a People magazine headline reading “Kate Middleton Is Back from Maternity Leave — with a New Haircut and Old Boots!”
Daniel Hallac, chief product officer for New York Magazine, said traffic from Apple News has doubled since December to now account for nearly 12 percent of visits to the magazine’s website. Traffic from Facebook has dropped about a third, to 8 percent of visits, while Google’s share has increased slightly to nearly half of the site’s traffic. “I’m optimistic about Apple News,” he said.
But in return for that traffic, publishers are stuck with Apple’s less-than-ideal terms. Apple News readers typically stay in Apple’s app, limiting the data that news organizations learn about them and curbing their ad revenues. Slate reported last month that its Apple News readers had roughly tripled over the past year but that, on average, it earned more money on 50,000 views on its site than the six million views it averaged per month in Apple News.
Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president who oversees its services push, said publishers can run their own ads alongside their stories in Apple News and keep all of the revenue. “That’s very rare,” he said. He noted most major publishers take advantage of that feature. Apple also places ads for publishers for a 30 percent cut.
But news publishers said selling ads for Apple News is complicated, and that advertisers’ interest was limited because of the lack of customer data. Slate also attributed its issues to minuscule revenue from the ads Apple placed. Apple recently made it easier for publishers to place their own ads, but Mr. Cue conceded Apple is not terribly good — or interested — in advertising.