The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Apple’s News app might help Apple. It probably won’t help the news.

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I have to assume that in some culture (maybe my own), there is an allegory about an ill patient being tended to by scores of doctors, all of whom offer different remedies, breaking into factions focused on one strategy or another, fighting within their smaller groups about particular iterations of their assumed cure. The patient, meanwhile, just sits there helplessly withering, his dry mouth opening and closing silently as his gaze darts around imperfections on the ceiling. Let's call this the Allegory of the Overstaffed Trauma Center, and let's apply it to the news industry.

The Washington Post is a newspaper, which was a good industry to be in until the stupid Internet came and ruined everything. Now, it's a difficult industry, the only salvation of which is that none of the newer forms of news reporting and distribution are doing much better. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, etc., but if everyone's blind, at least there's a level playing field. A number of news organizations can make out darker and lighter shapes, perhaps, but it doesn't get much better than that.*

Technology, like a 12-year-old messing with his bike, took apart the old media model and can't quite figure out how to put it back together. On Monday, Apple unveiled a revamped news system for its iOS devices -- that is to say, for iPhones and iPads. Called "News," Apple is partnering with a number of news organizations to offer articles for the Flipboard-like platform.

"News" is essentially a tear-down-and-rebuild subset of the broader media tear-down-and-rebuild. Apple is dismantling the "Newsstand" app which, like an IRL newsstand, added a layer of intervention between people and information that they could get elsewhere online easier -- and so no one used it. The new app will offer a "curated selection of articles based on your interests," Apple says, that "has the latest stories, articles, and posts, with over a million topics to choose from," and which "keeps all your favorite publishers, topics, and genres in one place." Cool, great.

You'll notice that your actual favorite publisher -- The Washington Post -- is not included in the image above. I am not privy to why that is; I would be surprised if Apple hadn't reached out. My guess is that it is because The Post has its own standalone app that is coming to iOS at some point soon, but I don't know that for sure.

You may also notice that other, less-favorite publishers are missing. The app will operate less like an RSS feed (or like Flipboard now) allowing you to add whatever you wish, and more like Apple TV, with pre-set publishers from which you can choose. (Though publishers will be able to "make their stories available for users' feeds," according to Wired.) Open the app, see some hand- (algorithmically-) picked stories, or go to your subscriptions.

So what's Apple's play here? Apple's goal is always to keep you in the Apple universe. It would rather have you read articles in News than on Twitter because, while publishers keep revenue from ads, Apple gets 30 percent of new subscriptions. It is the staffer in the Allegory of the Overstaffed Trauma Center who also works as a consultant for a drug company, and so all of his recommendations tie back to the particular drug he's trying to peddle. Fine, fair enough, recognize it for what it is. When Facebook announced instant articles last month, you were recommended to take the announcement with a similar grain of salt. "We want people to have to spend less time waiting for pages to load!," Facebook declared, which is a bit like a hospital offering you a bed that can recline if you promise to stay for another week.

For publishers that are included in the app, it doesn't seem like there's much of a downside. It even seems as though it could help with a growing problem for established companies: Few people know or care where the news they consume comes from. On Twitter, and particularly on Facebook, the company reporting/writing/originating/hosting a story becomes inconsequential to the story itself. Readers don't care. Media companies do, and having the logo of the outlet underneath the free stories (as it seems will happen) is better than nothing.

Those not included in the app? We -- meaning that quite literally as me, an employee of The Washington Post -- will find out. We'll have our app, but if people get used to using News to read the news, we'll require a level of effort from our readers that no media outlet wants, any more than they wanted to be in Newsstand. If the algorithm is good and expansive enough, this could eat market share from Flipboard, Twitter and even, theoretically, those daily newsletters people send around. Not to mention from those outside the ecosystem.

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that, in the struggle between curing the patient and selling the treatment, Apple will always defer to selling the treatment. It would rather have it be effective, but it's not super worried if it isn't. News is interesting, an experiment in sharing news articles on mobile devices, an increasingly important consumption market.

But it, like Facebook Instant, is just part of the medical ecosystem. It is not a cure.

* A big exception -- somewhat ironically for our purposes -- is local television, which still has a lot of viewers and into which political campaigns love to dump money every couple of years.

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