The Royal Spotlight on Apple News

When Apple News first launched with iOS 9 in 2015, I was enthusiastic about its potential to deliver a variety of high-quality news sources and stories, in contrast to the algorithmic, sensationalist tripe that is surfaced by Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Key to Apple News’s strength, supposedly, has been the focus on human curation in its Spotlight section. For some time, I used the app to follow various Australian and foreign news sites. I enjoyed it and admired the idea of human curation. Sure, it couldn’t be perfect, however it did sound great that someone—a real person—would be ensuring that people are exposed to diverse stories and views.

More recently, after Apple’s albeit impressive services event, I have been less enthusiastic about Apple News. The focus on News-app-specific addresses, rather than URLs on the open Web, has made me less comfortable with it. I’ve now moved to the new Reeder 4, relying on open RSS feeds. Consequently, News has been sitting in a folder for some time now.

Still, wanting to keep an open mind, recently I thought that I should open it to see what was happening in Spotlight. I had forgotten that everyone was in the grip of ROYAL BABY FEVER. Here are a few screenshots from Spotlight on one day last week.

Apple’s editorial team took the term ‘spotlight’ way too seriously. I have absolutely zero interest in the royal baby and the monarchy that continues to rule (technically) over Australia. Now, I understand that this may seem to be an issue of subjectivity—many people are indeed interested in the royal baby.

However this is just one baby on our planet. How many other children were born on that same day? For that matter, how many died from poverty around the world? Is this really news or is it a tacky human-interest story, swept up in romantic, monarchistic ideals from centuries past?

Of course, you may be thinking, ‘…but Martin, this is the point: it wasn’t algorithmically personalised, so you just shouldn’t tap on it if you’re not interested’. I think that’s besides the point. If this is the standard of news presentation and journalistic ‘curation’ that Apple envisages for its News service, as thousands of arguably more important stories swirl around the globe, then that’s a concern to me. Apple shouldn’t want its Spotlight section to morph into Women’s Weekly.

I’m sure that Apple was serious when it first asserted its passion for journalistic integrity, however with the recent announcement of Apple News+, which is a paid service, I am unsure of the company’s ability to uphold this ideal. Unlike podcasts, which until now have remained a relatively open media space, Apple is looking to increase its services revenue in the news space. Can a company that is driven to attract eyeballs and dollars to its News app fulfil its promise to provide diverse, high-quality content? When Apple News+ rolls around to Australia, I may still try it, but at this point I’m not so sure.