Monday 21 October 2019

Steve Dempsey: Apple now hungry for you to consume its news slices

'If there's one tech company that thinks different it's Apple. And it seems to be turning its attention to news.' Stock Image: REUTERS
'If there's one tech company that thinks different it's Apple. And it seems to be turning its attention to news.' Stock Image: REUTERS
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Big tech has been colonising how online users consume news for some time. Facebook, Google and others have been happy to take all the ad money by controlling news distribution through search and newsfeeds.

But breaking stories and informing the public - the expensive stuff - hasn't been their focus. The result of investing in engineers over editors has been news platforms that amount to online echo chambers where opinions are reinforced, foreign interference is hard to curtail and misinformation can proliferate.

But if there's one tech company that thinks different it's Apple. And it seems to be turning its attention to news. Specifically around the US 2018 midterm elections.

Now, the US midterms look pretty confusing to anyone on this side of the Atlantic. A host of offices across all states are up for decision; the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governorships and more. But regardless of the politics, what Apple's up to is indicative of its approach to news.

So what's the unique selling point? According to Apple it's all about trust - specifically in the realm of politics. "Today, more than ever, people want information from reliable sources - especially when it comes to making voting decisions," said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News, who certainly talks a good talk. "An election is not just a contest; it should raise conversations and spark national discourse. By presenting quality news from trustworthy sources and curating a diverse range of opinions, Apple News aims to be a responsible steward of those conversations and help readers understand the candidates and the issues."

So Apple's midterm section will offer stories from trusted publishers, curated by Apple News editors. Trusted publishers does include Fox News, mind. Other features include a data dashboard from the Washington Post; a weekly briefing from Axios; and analysis from Politico that examines the themes and trends that matter to voters. Apple has also stressed it will serve users opinion columns about important issues from news sources they may not follow.

Apple CEO Tim Cook talked up his company's approach to news at last week's Fortune CEO Initiative conference in San Francisco. "News was kind of going a little crazy," Cook said. "For Apple News, we felt top stories should be selected by humans, to make sure you're not picking content that strictly has the goal of enraging people."

Sounds promising. But it also sounds like a swipe at Facebook. The social network is still struggling on the PR front around news. It recently enraged publishers by saying it would classify promoted news articles about politics as ads promoting political candidates and issues. Facebook's patchy approach to vetting political news is also a concern.

While the company is taking the US midterms seriously - it's tracking 50 different elections and paying heed to those deemed "high risk" - other countries aren't so lucky. Mexico, for example, has its own elections in July, but according to the Washington Post, up to last month fewer than a dozen fact-checkers were tasked with debunking Mexican disinformation for the country's 84 million Facebook users.

Apple's play here is to avoid Facebook's political and PR pitfalls. But also to test what a viable subscription business looks like. In March, Apple bought Texture, a digital subscription service which offers users unlimited access to 200 magazines for a monthly fee. This caused many observers to assume that Apple would integrate it into its news app to launch its own premium subscription service.

Apple has form in this regard. It bought Beats for $3bn in 2014 and turned a business with fewer than a million subscribers into one with 40 million paying users. Could Texture be the new Beats? A canny acquisition that kickstarts content based revenues? Possibly. But as an acquisition, Texture lacks Beats' hip brand and news lacks music's street cred.

So the midterm news initiative is best seen as a test. There's little chance that what Apple is unveiling will be anything other than a good looking news aggregator. Given Apple's approach to privacy, it won't be based on surveillance marketing and given the involvement of some news professionals, it'll offer a more balanced picture of the US midterms.

But what it'll probably do best of all is offer Apple a greater insight into how to build on its massive user base and desirable technology to turn users into paying users.

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