The New York Times has gotten a rare behind-the-scenes look at how news is curated within Apple News, revealing how Apple’s “radical approach” of using humans to curate news feeds has resulted in providing a more informative and nuanced source of news. While most other online news sources — from Google to Facebook — have relied on building complex algorithms to filter the news that they display to their users, Apple’s news team takes an opposite approach. Each day, about a dozen former journalists on the Apple News team, headed by editor-in-chief Lauren Kern, work together to select the news items that will be featured on up to 90 million iOS devices in the United States, the U.K., and Australia.
The Times provides a snapshot into a typical day in the life in Apple’s newsroom:
One morning in late August, Apple News’s editor in chief, Lauren Kern, huddled with a deputy to discuss the five stories to feature atop the company’s three-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 stories that the Justice Department had backed an affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard University — a good proxy that the story mattered, said Ms. Kern’s deputy, a former editor for The New York Times whom Apple requested not be named for privacy reasons. He and Ms. Kern quickly agreed that it was the day’s top news, and after reading through a few versions, selected The Washington Post’s report because, they said, it provided the most context and explanation on why the news mattered.
The team reportedly made similar decisions to pick in-depth but balanced sources for a number of other topics, including hot-button areas such as racial issues, and lighter fare such as John McCain’s memorial service, the U.S. Open, and a Bloomberg article on 20-hour flights. Ms. Kern told The Times that one of their goals was to provide a mix of stories in the same way that the front page of a newspaper would be laid out, and that they would make their selections from a short list provided by three editors in New York alongside dozens of pitches from major publications. Kern added that “We put so much care and thought into our curation, [as] It’s seen by a lot of people and we take that responsibility really seriously.”
While Apple’s approach has generally been free from controversy thus far, particularly in comparison to the problems other services like Facebook have run into with algorithm-selected stories, the Times notes that Lauren Kern has “quietly become one of the most powerful figures in English-language media” through her role in personally selecting the top stories on a service that is regularly read by tens of millions of people. Over the first three years of is launch, Apple News has been largely ignored, but as the Times notes, the secretive nature of Apple makes its role as gatekeeper of its news service potentially more open to accusations of bias, particularly considering that the company has done little up until now to provide transparency on how the process works, and who is picking the stories. Apple’s agreement to allow a Times reporter a look into how it operates Apple News is presumably an attempt by the company to open things up a bit, but the Times notes that Apple only agreed to allow this “after extensive negotiations on the terms of the interviews.”
As with everything Apple does, of course, the company’s plans are ambitious; it has recently been attempting to expand advertising opportunities for its publishers — with mixed results — and has been reportedly working on adding subscription content to Apple News since early 2016 — plans which seem to have gained more steam recently with the company’s recent acquisition of Texture. Other sources familiar with Apple’s plans told The Times that Apple is also hoping to package access to key daily-news publications into the app. Apple’s executives are building the service with the dream of saving 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. For its part, Apple remains convinced that human curation is a major key to achieving this goal. “We are responsible for what’s in there,” Roger Rosner, Apple’s chief of apps and Ms. Kern’s boss, said about Apple News. “We’re not just going to let it be a total crazy land.”