Old News About Apple News
At the beginning of the summer, reports began to leak out of Cupertinorumoring that Apple Inc. may be in talks to buy Condé Nast as part of an effort to strengthen the content offerings of their native app, Apple News. And while Condé Nast eventually denied the rumors, there was a remarkable lack of serious conversation or consideration to the potential impact of such a purchase.
News is public service. The ability to freely and accurately report on the goings on within our society is an important way in which we hold people and the corporations they run responsible for their actions. Major news outlets, from the well-known standalone newspapers to larger media companies, inform and shape the views of people across the country, and world. When individuals who have amassed vast wealth purchase news outlets, it raises an oft-cited ethical dilemma — one most obviously illustrated by the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos in 2013: Where is the line between ownership and editorial discretion, and how can that handicap each news organization’s ability to perform its role — including remaining trustworthy in the public sphere.
If your paper is owned by the guy who also owns Amazon, and you are given a directive from on-high that says to lay off negative coverage of worker conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers, you are unable to be relied upon as a news source. Similarly, if you saw every single one of Jeff Bezos’ charitable donations on the front page of the Washington Post, regardless of the size or impact, the paper would cease to be seen as credible in the eyes of the public. The general rule of thumb adopted by most journalists is that, when in doubt, discretion should be given to journalists to freely report what they wish without regard to the social, financial, or political repercussions it may have for the owner, positive or negative.
However, there is a secondary ethical dilemma that often gets passed over — and that plays a central role in the implications of Apple potentially purchasing a mass-media company — and that is the ability of the general public to access the news.
Since the proliferation of news on the internet, media companies have struggled with balancing the desire for free access to news and information for the public with the real world costs associated with journalistic endeavors. Reporters need to be paid for their work, and the increasing complexity of what constitutes “news content”, as highly produced video and audio reporting continues to become the norm, means that costs are only increasing as media companies struggle to find new ways to break even. Commonplace solutions trend toward a combination of advertising revenue, from both display ads and branded content, and paywalls which require paid subscriptions to bypass.
Apple is known for, more often than not, keeping its products in a “walled garden.” Their flagship iOS software only runs on devices that they design and build. Consequently, their apps and services, like iMessage, iCloud, Apple Music, and more are exclusive to those who own or use Apple products. One such services is Apple News, the aforementioned service that a potential Condé Nast purchase would likely be integrated into.
While Apple News started its life as a news aggregator, it has since begun moving into editorial content. On April 30th, Apple News released its first-ever exclusive — an excerpt from Arizona Senator John McCain’s latest book, along with an article that provides context. In order to access Apple News, you need an iOS device. The cheapest standalone iOS device is the iPod Touch, a $199 device with a 4” display. Meanwhile, a study from early 2017 revealed that a surprise $500 expense would put most Americans in debt, making a $200 technology purchase likely cost prohibitive for a majority of Americans, especially those who live in multi-person households.
Apple should be able to have a walled garden — as an independent company, they should be able to exercise control over as much of their product experience as they can within the scope of the law. Similarly, there are many news or media companies that set a high cost for access to their reporting, especially publications with a niche audience. However, for a company who’s original founding ethos was “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind,” the restriction of information that would formerly cost a few dollars at a newsstand to only those fortunate enough to access it seems problematic. And this information isn’t for a niche or of limited importance — John McCain single handedly (no pun intended) ensured that people across the nation could still access healthcare when he voted against Obamacare repeal. As an influential public figure and elected official, the ability of the voting public to understand his thoughts is of utmost importance.
This isn’t just Apple’s problem. The cost of a digital-only subscription to the three highest-circulation newspapers in the United States, after a year of promotional pricing, is $62.99/month — similarly unaffordable to the average citizen. The question now becomes, how do we guarantee quality reporting to the country at little to no cost? That’s an answer I don’t have, but I suspect it lives somewhere in a middle ground between advertiser-based income and a publicly-funded yet independent news agency a-la the BBC or CBC. Whether the appetite for such a agency or the political will to implement it correctly exists is another question entirely.
And Apple? While they didn’t buy Condé Nast, they did change their mission statement. As relayed in a 2017 annual report,
"Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork, and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad."
Extract from that what you will about the changing priorities of a company that has recently passed a $1 trillion valuation.