Apple’s Radical Approach to News: Humans Over Machines

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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.

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,” 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.

“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.”

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