Apple News’ radical approach: Humans over machines15 min read . Updated: 01 Nov 2018, 01:22 PM IST
Apple News is doing what many other tech companies have for years left to software: selecting the news that tens of millions of people will read
Apple News is doing what many other tech companies have for years left to software: selecting the news that tens of millions of people will read
New York: Many of Apple’s employees moved into a glistening new $5 billion glass headquarters in Cupertino, California, this year. A mile west, at Apple’s old campus on 1 Infinite Loop, a project antithetical to Silicon Valley’s ethos is now underway.
In a quiet corner of the third floor, Apple is building a newsroom of sorts. About a dozen former journalists have filled a few nondescript offices to do what many other tech companies have for years left to software: selecting the news that tens of millions of people will read.
One morning in late August, Apple News’ editor-in-chief, Lauren Kern, huddled with a deputy to discuss the five stories to feature atop the company’s 3-year-old news app, which comes preinstalled on every iPhone in the United States, Britain and Australia.
National news sites were leading that day with articles that the Justice Department had backed an affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard University — a good proxy that the story mattered, said Kern’s deputy, a former editor for The New York Times whom Apple requested not be named for privacy reasons. He and Kern quickly agreed that it was the day’s top news, and after reading through a few versions, selected The Washington Post’s report, saying it provided the most context and explanation on why the news mattered.
Another story drawing wide coverage: racial barbs on the first day of the Florida governor’s race. Kern and her deputy said they wanted a piece that covered the topic thoughtfully because race is a sensitive subject. They selected a nuanced Miami Herald piece that examined the comments, their context and the debate about them.
They also later picked a CBS News video of John McCain’s memorial service, an SB Nation story on Serena and Venus Williams facing off in the US Open, and a Bloomberg feature on 20-hour flights. Kern said her team aimed to mix the day’s top stories with lighter features and sometimes longer investigations, much like the front page of a newspaper. They largely chose from a list of contenders compiled that morning by three editors in New York who pored over the home pages and mobile alerts of national news sites, as well as dozens of pitches from publications.
“We put so much care and thought into our curation," said Kern, 43, a former executive editor of New York magazine. “It’s seen by a lot of people, and we take that responsibility really seriously."
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 peers rely on machines and algorithms to pick headlines, Apple uses humans like 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 1 million visits each.
Their work has complicated the debate about whether internet 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.
Apple’s strategy is risky. While the company has long used people to curate its App Store, the news is far more contentious. The famously secretive company has also provided little transparency on who is picking the stories for Apple News and how those people avoid bias.
For the first time recently — and after extensive negotiations on the terms of the interviews — Apple agreed to let a Times reporter in on how it operates Apple News.
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," 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% 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.
“What Apple giveth, Apple can taketh away," said Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism professor and a former editor at The Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. Once readers are trained to get their news from Apple, he said, news organizations will realize: “You’re at the mercy of Apple."
For decades, newspapers had one of industry’s most direct relationships with customers: Broadsheets and tabloids reported the news, printed it and delivered it to your door.
Then the internet arrived, and Google and Facebook became the middlemen between publishers and their readers, while leveraging that position to dominate digital advertising and decimate newspapers’ advertising business model.
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 favourite 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.
After the 2016 presidential election, Americans learned that partisan trolls and Russian agents had used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread divisive messages to voters, gaming their algorithms. The revelations prompted scrutiny of the companies’ influence over media and society. To better police their sites, the companies promised to hire more humans — and add more algorithms.
Apple said it remained convinced of the benefits of people.
“We are responsible for what’s in there," Roger Rosner, Apple’s chief of apps and Kern’s boss, said about Apple News. “We’re not just going to let it be a total crazy land."
To create its newsroom, Apple needed journalists. Starting in 2015, it poached editors from The Times, The Journal, CNN and Bleacher Report, among other publications. To lead them all, an Apple recruiter found Kern, a rising star in the New York magazine world.
Kern, born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to a lawyer who later became a federal judge and a former reporter for The Daily Ardmoreite, got her journalism start at an alt-weekly, the Houston Press, while attending Rice University in 1996. In 2004, she joined New York magazine as an editor.
“You don’t generally have the whole package, but she did," Adam Moss, New York magazine’s editor-in-chief, said of Kern’s news judgment, story ideas and work ethic.
In 2010, Kern joined The New York Times Magazine as deputy editor. Four years later, Moss lured her back to New York magazine as executive editor. In that role, she shepherded the magazine’s high-profile cover story on women who accused Bill Cosby of rape and edited the stories about the chief of Fox News, Roger Ailes, and his history of sexual harassment.
Last year, Moss said, Kern came into his office with the news that Apple had approached her about a job.
“I said to her, ‘Why would you want to do that?’" recalled Moss. “With the literary skills and the artistic skills Lauren had, to go into a company that was really dominated by engineers was a recipe for enormous frustration."
Kern said it was an opportunity to help journalism from the other side. Going to tech also came with a raise; she would not say how much. She moved from Brooklyn to one of Silicon Valley’s most expensive ZIP codes, where she bought a car for the first time in 13 years, a golden retriever named Leo for her son, and a spacious house with chicken coops in the back. (She plans to leave the coops empty.)
In interviews, Kern was lighthearted but matter of fact. Friends and former colleagues described her as fiercely dedicated to two things: her son and her job.
“She has an executive’s brain. Most places I work, journalists are such poor managers," said Noreen Malone, a former colleague at New York magazine. “It was always clear Lauren was going to run something."
Now Kern leads roughly 30 former journalists in Sydney, London, New York and Silicon Valley. They spend their days consuming news across the internet, fielding 100 to 200 pitches a day from publishers, and debating which stories get the top spots.
Ultimately, they select five stories to lead the app, with the top two also displayed in a prominent window to the left of the iPhone home screen. They also curate a magazine-style section of feature stories. The lineup typically shifts five or more times a day, depending on the news. A single editor in London typically chooses the first mix of stories for the East Coast’s morning commute before editors in New York and then Cupertino step in.
Kern said she prioritizes accuracy over speed. When a 24-year-old gunman killed two people in August at a video game competition in Jacksonville, Florida, headlines on Google News, Facebook and Twitter blared that the shooter hated President Donald Trump — a sensational detail that drove clicks and helped spread the story.
On Apple News, the prominent stories about the attack did not mention this factor. Kern had told her staff to be especially wary of reports immediately after mass shootings. “After every shooting, there’s always a ‘this person is associated with a terror group,’ and then it turns out not to be true," she said. She was proved right: Within days, the killer’s alleged hatred for Trump turned out to be false.
That approach also led Apple News to not run an ABC News bombshell in December about Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The story alleged that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that Trump had directed him to contact Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. It rocketed across the internet, boosted by Google, Facebook and Twitter, before ABC News retracted it. A spokeswoman for ABC News said the story it offered Apple did not include the inaccuracy.
Kern said she and her team did not run the story because they didn’t trust it. Why? It’s not a formula that can be baked into an algorithm, she said.“I mean, you read a story and it doesn’t quite pass the smell test," she said.
Kern said Apple News also strives to provide readers with views from both sides of the political debate. When Apple in June unveiled a special section on the midterm elections, it highlighted Fox News and Vox as partners. Apple said there are as many people reading traditionally left-leaning publications as traditionally right-leaning publications on Apple News.
Still, human editors have the potential for bias — or at least accusations of it. Conservative politicians and pundits, including Trump, have in recent years criticized Google, Twitter and Facebook, accusing them of silencing voices on the right. The companies have tried to deflect that criticism by letting algorithms take control.
Facebook in 2014 hired people to pick “trending topics" that the site highlighted on its website. But in 2016, former employees said it had a liberal bias. Three months later, Facebook laid off the human editors and put algorithms in charge.
Kern criticized the argument that algorithms are the sole way to avoid prejudice because bias can be baked into the algorithm’s code, such as whether it labels news organizations liberal or conservative. She argued that humans — with all their biases — are the only way to avoid bias.
“We’re so much more subtly following the news cycle and what’s important," she said. “That’s really the only legitimate way to do it at this point."
Not all of the stories in Apple News are hand-picked. 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 Kern’s team’s curated stories. Those items tend to focus on Trump or celebrities. Making the list 2 October: a People magazine headline reading “Kate Middleton Is Back From Maternity Leave — With a New Haircut and Old Boots!"
Apple executives said they are convinced that Apple News is not only a cure for the ills of how people consume news in the internet era but also a lifeline for journalism — and democracy.
“From the very beginning, Tim said we have a responsibility to help the news industry," said Rosner, referring to Apple’s chief executive, Timothy Cook. “It’s fundamental to democracy."
In actual newsrooms, there is skepticism that a tech giant will rescue the industry.
Executives at nine news organizations said they were hopeful Apple News could help boost business but were cautious of betting on it. Those from major news sites said Apple News had quickly become a crucial source of traffic, in some cases surpassing Facebook, which this year changed its algorithm to reduce the visibility of publishers and sent referrals plummeting.
Daniel Hallac, chief product officer for New York magazine, said traffic from Apple News had doubled since December to 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 earns more money on a story that draws 50,000 views on its site than one that draws 6 million views 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 that the majority of publishers take advantage of that feature. Apple also places ads for publishers for a 30 percent cut.
But news publishers said that selling ads for Apple News was 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 Cue conceded Apple is not terribly good — or interested — in advertising.
Another potential issue is that Apple News mostly helps a small coterie of publishers. In July, Florida’s largest newspaper, The Tampa Bay Times, received 79% of its outside web traffic from Google and 20% from Facebook, said Conan Gallaty, the paper’s digital chief. Apple accounted for 1%, he said.
“Of the major three — Facebook, Google and Apple — Apple probably kept the furthest distance in engaging with regional and local publishers," he said.
Kern said she has directed her staff to source news from local publications “whenever there’s a local story that rises to kind of national interest." She said Apple News used The Sacramento Bee for coverage of California wildfires and The Kansas City Star when a tour boat capsized in Missouri. But most days, Apple features stories from national publications.
Cue said Apple is most interested in helping publishers sell subscriptions. Apple News enables people to subscribe at the tap of a finger, leveraging many iPhone owners’ preloaded credit cards.
But there is concern here, too.
Apple nabs 30% of subscription revenues the first year and 15% each subsequent year. In contrast, Google takes a 5% cut; Facebook takes nothing. Apple also owns the customer relationship, unlike Google or Facebook, refusing to pass along even subscribers’ email addresses.
Given those terms, some news executives said Apple News could cannibalize future subscribers, leaving news organizations with less revenue and less data per customer.
Cue said that Apple primarily delivers customers who wouldn’t have subscribed otherwise and that its revenue share was “a relatively small cut," in part to offset its costs. “It’s not a huge moneymaking business," he said.
In April, Apple bought Texture, an app that lets readers pay $10 a month for access to about 200 magazines. It plans to incorporate the service into Apple News, drastically expanding its reach, according to people familiar with its plans.
Given Apple’s ambitions and growing team of former journalists, will it ever start producing the news and not just aggregating it?
“We don’t talk about future plans, but that’s certainly not what we set out to do," said Rosner.
So there’s a chance?
“Who knows?" he said.