How Apple can fix news

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Two months ago, Tim Cook railed against the rise of “mind-killing” fake news and pledged Apple News’s support in the battle against it. And so far, Apple News has done an admirable job of curtailing false news. But it’s done a lousy job of elevating good journalism.

Here’s why that’s an issue: Starting with iOS 10, Apple News comes as a preinstalled widget on the iPhone. Because few people customize their widgets, Apple News enjoys undue influence in shaping daily news perception.

With that power, Apple has had the opportunity to usher-in a new standard for digital journalism. Instead, it has eschewed bold strokes for mediocrity and sensationalism.

Here are the two key mistakes Apple is making:

1. Too much randomness

The Apple News widget displays two headlines in each of two categories: “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories.”

The logic behind this separation appears sound: Every media outlet has a top and trending list, right?

But at a single media outlet, editors choose top stories and readers choose trending stories. The lines are clear. Apple News isn’t a single media outlet; it’s an aggregator that algorithmically scours the field. Meaning, for a top story to make the cut, it’s probably trending among its peers, and for a trending story to make the cut, it has to be on top. The lines are mish-mashed.

Sometimes, the same story appears both under the “Top” heading and the “Trending” heading. Other times, a fluff story appears under “Top” and a story of material importance appears under “Trending.”

I bring up the poor category distinction not because it’s particularly harmful but to underscore the chaos that Apple introduced into its widget design. It gave its product privileged placement but left to chance the quality and social responsibility that that placement demands.

Let’s assume Apple will improve on its categories. Perhaps it will only feature lighter stories under “Trending.” Well, that raises a question: Why should the important stories share equal real estate with the popular stories? Especially in this age when so many stories trend for the wrong reasons — because they appeal to our baser instincts, because their parent is a master of social media, or because they went through 100 headline iterations.

Apple should remove “Trending” altogether, or at least rethink the split.

“I would probably emphasize top news with at least a 2 to 1 ratio,” said digital culture guru Douglas Rushkoff, when I asked him about this recently. “It would be nice to lose trending stories altogether, but people feel disconnected without them; they need to see headlines about Taylor Swift or scandals in order to feel relevant.”

With such a change, Apple would lose empty clicks in the process, but who cares? As Rushkoff pointed out, “Apple’s competitive advantage is their business model: they are not delivering eyeballs to advertisers or data miners, they are delivering news to customers.”

In a CNN interview, Apple SVP Eddie Cue said as much.

“We benefit by creating a great application on our devices. And we think this is a really, really important application for the world,” said Cue.

In an age when clickbait dominates social media, wouldn’t it be more important for iPhone owners — and society — for Apple to highlight substance over buzz?

2. Extreme perspectives

We all love editorials, obviously, but if you could pick four headlines from every media outlet in the world to represent the most important news of the day, how often would an editorial make the cut? How about a comically spun editorial from a hard-skew outlet? Probably not very often. Yet the Apple News widget promotes sensationalist editorials every day.

Apple showcases extreme stories from both sides of the spectrum. Like boxers in a ring, one day Fox News uppercuts and the next day HuffPost counter punches. Meanwhile, Apple holds the mic as the prime time promoter.

“Stories with extreme perspectives are bifurcating our society,” said Rushkoff, “and Apple can use human beings to curate the news people actually need rather than the clickbait that simply gets our attention for no good reason. They already use humans to curate playlists for music and apps.”

As a discerning moderator, Apple could feature editorials with balanced, nuanced analysis and penalize the rest.

Apple could also curtail or rewrite clickbait headlines, cutting phrases like “you’ll never believe what…” or replacing “Trump absolutely crushed liberal reporter…” with “Trump criticized Times reporter…” Rewriting headlines sounds dramatic, but Techmeme, a gold standard in news aggregation, has been doing it since 2013.

Rewriting headlines would solve another problem: that many headlines as-written are too long for the widget. It’s common for long widget headlines to end abruptly in an ellipse, obfuscating their meaning. This helps no one: readers get confused and publishers receive less engaged clicks.

Right now, media outlets are incentivized to run clickbait headlines. The upside is unlimited and the penalties are non-existent. Apple can change the paradigm.

A silver lining: no personalization

One thing Apple is getting right, though, according to Rushkoff, is the lack of personalization options for its News widget.

The first time a distrusted media outlet appeared in my widget, I dove into the depths of Apple News and emerged with a dozen sources added and blacklisted. Wiping the water from my eyes, I looked up at the scoreboard only to see that it hadn’t changed.

It turns out that while you can customize Apple News to jelly, those changes don’t carry over into its widget. And the widget doesn’t appear to take your reading activity into account (I tested this with three iPhone devices).

While I found this lack of customization personally frustrating, especially in lieu of the problems discussed earlier, Rushkoff sees it as necessary. He praised Apple’s decision to show everyone the same headlines and contrasted that decision with Facebook and Google’s take on the news, which hides too much. “At least with a newspaper, you knew the stories you were ignoring,” said Rushkoff, “they stayed in your awareness.” With Apple’s News widget, that’s true again.

How could Apple improve its news widget?

The short answer is “obsessive human curation.” The long answer is:

  • Obsessive human curation
  • Rethink the “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories” distinction and ratio
  • Prioritize thoughtful editorials over spin
  • Penalize clickbait headlines or rewrite them
  • Hide or rewrite headlines that are too long for the widget
  • Add more media outlets, especially smaller outlets

Living up to the name

So far, I’ve referred to Apple News as “Apple News.” That’s the official designation on the App Store, but not what the app calls itself. Underneath its pink icon and headlining its widget is one word: “News.”

Apple names a lot of its apps in the shorthand, like “Calculator,” “Weather,” and “Watch,” but “News” is a loaded word. It represents an ideal in a sea of coverage tarnished with a human point-of-view.

I bring this up not to criticize Apple for falling short of “News” — everyone does — but to give it a loftier target. With a thoughtful, socially responsible approach, this little widget can set the standard for the news. And that’ll benefit everyone, most of all Apple itself.

Adam Ghahramani is an independent product and marketing producer based in New York and a frequent contributor to VentureBeat. Find him at adamagb.com or make friends on Twitter (@adamagb).

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