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.
Have you ever watched the construction of a new building while knowing nothing about what the finished product would be? You track its progress a piece at a time, clueless about the end goal until finally there comes a point when, in a single moment, suddenly it all makes sense.
Apple's media ambitions have been like that for me.
In recent years, Apple has taken a variety of actions in the media space that seemed mostly disconnected, but over time they've added up to something that can't be ignored.
- 2015: Apple Music and Apple News launched.
- 2016: Apple Music redesigned; TV app debuted.
- 2017: App Store revamped with dedicated games section; Apple Podcasts redesigned; TV app adds sports and news.
- 2018: Apple acquires Texture; iBooks redesigned and rebranded Apple Books.
- 2019: Apple's video streaming service launches?
Apple already has control of the hardware that media is consumed on, with its ever-expanding iPhone business and suite of complementary products. It has invested significant effort into building the apps media is consumed in, as evidenced above. And finally, it's also building the paid services media is consumed through.
And the company is doing these things at a scale that is unprecedented. Once not long ago, Apple's primary media platform was iTunes. Now, hundreds of millions of users consume media every day through Apple's suite of spiritual successors to iTunes:
- Apple Music
- Apple TV (the app)
- Apple Podcasts
- Apple Books
- Apple News
- And the App Store
Apple has one unified goal, I believe, driving all its media efforts: it aspires to utilize hardware, software, and services to provide the entirety of a user's media experience. If you consume media, Apple wants to provide the full stack of that consumption, from media delivery to media discovery. My aim in this story is to share an overview of how that goal is being fulfilled today.
Today Apple announced the completion of its latest acquisition: Texture, a digital magazine subscription service.
Texture brings over 200 of the world’s best magazines to life, providing an easy way for users to read high-quality stories and entire issues of their favorite titles. With Texture, users enjoy the magazines they know and love, while discovering new content that fits their passions and interests.
Texture's iOS app was previously featured by the App Store editorial team as one of the best apps of 2016. Currently, you can still sign up for the service's $9.99/month subscription. There's no word in Apple's press release regarding whether Texture's existing app will shut down or continue running as-is.
Texture's Netflix-style model of subscription service feels like a perfect fit for future integration in Apple News. Individual subscriptions to publications like The Washington Post are currently available inside News, but this acquisition creates the potential for an official Apple service, similar to Apple Music, that bundles together the various magazine articles included in Texture. With Texture's existing catalog as a starting base, Apple could also be in the market for additional acquisition targets that would serve to beef up a future News-related service before its launch. Texture could just be the beginning.
Apple News got a major overhaul with iOS 10. Part of that was a change in its design, but there were other significant changes like human curation of news stories that have greatly improved the app. According to an article published by The Nieman Journalism Lab, those changes have had a big effect for some news organizations:
CNN… says its Apple News content got 36.5 million unique readers in September, a major increase from August’s 5 million. Its pageviews also increased significantly to 274 million, up from 43 million a month before.
“It’s really quite a remarkable story,” said Alex Wellen, CNN’s chief product officer. While CNN had seen “steady traffic growth” for most of the year,” said Wellen, Apple’s tweaks to its news app have changed the traffic picture significantly.
Bloomberg has seen a similarly significant spike in readership via Apple News. The difference appears to be at least in part a consequence of large news organizations’ regular inclusion in the Top Stories and human-curated Featured Stories sections. Other sites, like Slate, told The Nieman Journalism Lab that their pageviews have been flat.
Notwithstanding the eye-opening increases in traffic for some sites, the jury is still out on whether Apple News can generate significant revenue for news organizations:
Monetization is “still a work in progress,” noted [Bloomberg's] Havens. Slate, in a similar position, is “not monetizing Apple News very well at the moment,” said Schieffer. Wellen said CNN “has monetized its stories,” though he wouldn’t give specific details. Ads still feel like a rare occurrence for its Apple News content; publishers are still eager for integration with comScore, a major hurdle to getting advertisers interested in the platform.
Apple News: Greatly Improved
Apple News launched last year in iOS 9, and despite my early enthusiasm, I found the experience at launch to be deeply flawed and disappointing. However, in the past twelve months I have been pleasantly surprised by a number of improvements that Apple has made to News. These improvements go a long way in addressing nearly all of my major complaints about News from last year.
Shortly after completing my review last year, I stopped using News regularly – only checking in occasionally. But since installing the iOS 10 beta in late June I decided to give News another go, and this time, I'm finding it both enjoyable and useful.
Speaking of Apple News, Peter Kafka of Re/code reports that Apple has started an advertising campaign focused on the iOS 9 app.
Remember Apple News? Figured. Apple would like to change that, so it’s launching an ad campaign promoting the news aggregator it launched, without much fanfare, last fall.
If you’re in San Francisco, Chicago or New York, you might see the ads on billboards and in airports; the rest of you will have to look for it online.
You can see two examples of the billboards in Re/code's article, one featuring ESPN and the other featuring VICE – but Kafka notes that Apple is also working with Vox Media.
Emily Jane Fox, writing for Vanity Fair, yesterday reported that Apple has now opened the Apple News Format to independent publishers:
Apple News’s 40 million users are about to have a lot more articles to read. The iPhone maker announced Tuesday the launch of a new Web-based editing tool that will open its native iOS news platform to independent publishers of all sizes.
Since Apple launched the app in September, it has attracted more than 100 major publishers as partners, including this magazine’s Web site. What the new launch means is that anyone—from individual bloggers to smaller, independent news organizations—will be able to edit and deliver their stories, videos, galleries, and audio in the Apple News format, with Apple News’s reach.
Content can be published in Apple's News app either via RSS or the Apple News Format. Up until now, the Apple News Format has been invitation-only and limited to large publishers such as Vanity Fair, Vox, and CNN. The advantage for publishers in using the Apple News Format is that it gives them greater control over the look of their stories in the News app, they get detailed analytics information, and can earn revenue through iAd.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple has mistakenly been underestimating the number of readers using Apple News and providing those inaccurate numbers to publishers:
Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, said the company missed the error as it focused on other aspects of the product. The company didn’t explain how the problem occurred or say exactly when it might be rectified.
“We’re in the process of fixing that now, but our numbers are lower than reality,” he said. “We don’t know what the right number is,” but he added that it was better to undercount than overcount traffic.
A curious admission from Apple, particularly given that the issue has not been fixed yet. No details are given about the scale of the miscalculation, so it's unclear as to whether this will result in a minor adjustment or significant adjustment in reader statistics.
Executives from Apple, including Mr. Cue, met with publishers late last year to discuss the product and address concerns. Mr. Cue said Apple will continue to spend a lot of time getting feedback from publishers.
Two months ago there were a few reports, including this one from Digiday, which noted that publishers were "underwhelmed" and "dissapointed" by Apple News, and the reader numbers.