Apple as media gatekeeper

Tony Hallett

Tony Hallett

Managing Director

June 19, 2015 1:16 am

Apple won’t skew the news. If you wanted to get the most important part of this post in five words, you just did. But the topic is a bit more complicated than that.

Most outlets, when starting to look closely at Apple’s revamped and upcoming News app, which will be available when iOS 9 rolls out, have leant towards being worried, to asking, What happens when Apple starts to bury news it doesn’t like? Like negative stories about Apple, for example?

We get that. When a story is at the centre of a Venn where the circles are marked ‘tech company’, ‘journalism’ and ‘brand publishing’, I care deeply. So do most of these outlets, who defend a proud tradition of being as nice or nasty about Apple as they like. Quite possibly soon through the new app.

MacBook Air

When the tech company in question is the world’s largest (that’s tech company or just company, by the measure of market cap), then the stakes are even higher.

Apple has said it will use a team of curator editors. This is different to the algorithm approach favoured by others, such as Flipboard and, most famously, Google.

Some of the criticism has been that biased curators, presumably throwing out their training, ethics and experience as journalists, will surface happy-happy stories about Apple while burying the bad news.

That could happen. Just as it can happen when there is, in theory, no human involvement with other services. Algorithms get tweaked by humans, unexpected results come up. You get the idea.

But does algorithm-tastic Google News carry negative news about Google? Of course it does.

One of the first lessons of brand publishing, like journalism, is that credibility matters. Apple’s latest move is a bit more than the brand publishing most companies can do, but the same applies. In an age where not just Google but Facebook and the platform giants of tomorrow are working closely with publishers, Apple had to have a play.

Apple won’t skew the news, to say it again. There will be those who will never believe that’s the case, just as there will be times when it looks like that’s what Apple is doing. But Apple has everything to lose by doing that on purpose.

Imagine the proportion of stories carried over any platform that are about a single entity. It’s minuscule, even for today’s biggest celebrities, politicians, sports teams and, yes, mega corporations.

But consider this: Apple might not skew the news but there’s a high chance the whole effort won’t work and a couple of years from now we’ll have moved on. Editors weren’t much of a success at Facebook and Tumblr, though they have been moreso perhaps at LinkedIn. And, as an older media company, Yahoo has done some good original work. (You couldn’t have persuaded me I’d ever describe them that way in 1999.)

I actually like the idea that Apple wants to use human judgment to improve what we find out about. I don’t think the people there will go all Dr. Evil on us. It probably just won’t work.

*photo credit: MacBook Air via photopin (license)


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