Apple is hiring journalists. It’s not the first time the company has done that – it has curators working every day surfacing apps and music in its store, giving its efforts a defined editorial voice – but these vacancies are more significant.
It’s recruiting editors to work on its upcoming News app and the successful applicants will instantly become powerful arbiters of media success and failure.
The company’s existing product for magazines and newspapers, Newsstand, hasn’t been a hit with publishers or users. It’s clunky and has always felt like a compromised experience.
The app was hamstrung by Apple’s previous fascination withskeuomorphism, as if reading on a tablet or phone had to mimic the feeling of flipping through a paper copy. Some even called it a “jail.”
Newstand’s replacement, the utilitarianly named News, was unveiled atWWDC earlier this month. It does away with the idea of shelves and facsimiles of printed products in favour of a familiar stream of content. It also introduces a new way for writers and editors to present their stories – Apple News Format.
Apple vs. Facebook: The format wars
Coming in the wake of Facebook’s new way to package media (Instant Articles), Apple’s approach is another land grab by a technology company. Just as the social network’s moves mean it will have even greater influence on what journalists write and how they write it, Apple’s huge audience and built-in reach is significant.
In its job listing, the company says it’s looking for “ambitious, detail-oriented journalists with an obsession for great content and mobile news delivery.” It knows that there are “compelling stories unlikely to be identified by algorithms.” And that’s where its team of editors and their bosses will have a lot of power.
The News app will be automatically installed on hundreds of millions of devices. It will have an immediate advantage over third-parties through deep integration in iOS 9. Stories that Apple favors will benefit from massive exposure, sources that it doesn’t agree with could be easily buried.
Of course, users will be able to choose what news they read but the content that gets pushed by a platform has a huge advantage. Look at the example of Twitter’s early ‘suggested users’ feature, which gifted its picks with followings often reaching into the millions.
Apple’s ability to ‘feature’ apps, podcasts and music has a huge influence on the number of downloads. Transfer that to the world of news though and things start to get uncomfortable.
The company has shown itself to be fairly censorious in the past – cracking down on satirical apps, for instance – and when it comes to the media is a constant topic of discussion itself.
Der Spiegel’s Mathias Müller von Blumencron once warned, “We can’t adapt European magazines to the standards of Utah.” In the Apple News-powered future, such stands may start to be economically unfeasible.
The job description for the company’s new editors talks about writing email newsletters and managing relationships with major international publishers. Those emails will be powerful from day one and those partnerships will give some outlets favored status that will be enormously valuable.
The worm in the Apple?
Apple has long exercised an iron grip on its relationship with journalists. If you transfer that worldview over to its new role as a conduit for news, that’s not hugely inspiring. Its editorial viewpoint cannot be divorced from its interests as corporation.
What happens when an outlet decides to criticize Apple? Or publishes some other article that doesn’t jive with its worldview? We know that certain publications have been locked out of its press events for transgressions, both real and perceived. Why should News be any different?
Apple bans mentions of competing platforms – Android most notably – in its App Store review guidelines. How will its editors consider stories on rivals like Google or Samsung? Will News’ tech section seem oddly quiet duringGoogle I/O? Or desperately point in another direction like Dug, the dog from Up, shouting “Squirrel!
We’re facing a future in which Apple, Facebook and Google are increasingly not simply giving us access to a universe of news and opinion but implicitly and explicitly defining its boundaries. With that comes the very real threat of‘chilling effects’ – publications choosing not to act in a way that may upset the content gods.
Matt Galligan, CEO of the troubled news startup Circa, wrote that “simply put, the future for most is distribution and aggregation paired with a native reading experience” and welcomes Apple’s intervention as something that will be “a death knell for the stubborn and slow.” But that fails to address the power these new platforms will hold over the content serving serfs that labor within them.
Many have long been uncomfortable about the largely measurable influence of newspaper proprietors and media magnates on the stories that reach us. We should be just as dubious about the way the tech giants may soon be skewing our perspectives. If Apple and Facebook control the vehicles news reaches us through, they’ll inevitably influence the direction of travel.