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The Journalists and Processes That Drive Apple News

Today Jack Nicas of The New York Times published a first-of-its-kind in-depth look behind the curtain of how the Apple News journalistic team operates. The piece highlights Apple’s distinct handling of the news, where human curation is a larger driving factor than at other major tech companies. Nicas writes:

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.

Lauren Kern, the editor in chief of Apple News, heads a staff of journalists that span the globe. One of their chief responsibilities is selecting each day’s top stories for the app.

Ms. 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.

Apple News is a service that has grown increasingly important in recent days. As major tech companies like Google and Facebook have struggled to combat the fake news phenomenon, Apple relies on its editors’ discerning eyes.

Ms. 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, Fla., headlines on Google News, Facebook and Twitter blared that the shooter hated President Trump — a sensational detail that drove clicks and helped spread the story.

On Apple News, the prominent stories about the incident did not mention this factor. Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Ms. 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.

Besides information obtained directly from Apple, the story also mentions source-supported rumors of the company’s future plans for News, which not only include a Texture integration but also a potential bundling of major national publications into a single subscription. This latter option is something I think could have wide appeal, including for me personally. I like to read from a variety of sources, so a subscription bundle that provides that ability would be great.

I’ve been a daily Apple News reader for a long time now, and found Nicas’ entire article a fascinating read. As Apple continues moving further in the direction of becoming not just a tech company, but also a media giant, I hope the kind of transparency that inspired this story becomes commonplace.