Apple News Is the Best New Thing About the iPad
iOS 9 introduced a host of iPad-friendly features, most of them designed to nudge Apple’s tablet into the tasteful satchels of corporate America. The best new feature on the iPad, though, has nothing to do with enterprise. It’s Apple News.
Most of the discussion around Apple News over the last several months—Apple announced the app in June, at its annual developer conference—has focused on its impact on publishers, and what it means for media at large. There are good reasons for that; no one had really used the app yet, so there wasn’t much else to say—and the media understandably pays close attention to stories about itself.
It’s too early to tell what impact News (alongside Facebook’s Instant Articles, another hosted content play) will have on the publishing industry, though. “It’s not a slam dunk that these will be widely adopted,” says Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds. “On the one hand you can view it as more traffic … There’s a chance to earn some money in it. On the other hand, there’s a difficult situation for publishers of how much of the viewing of content takes place somewhere other than their own platform.”
With last week’s release of iOS 9, though, News is no longer a media industry abstraction. It’s here, which means we can finally talk about it not in terms of business models but user experience. On the phone, it’s fine, a long scroll of assorted headlines and blurbs. On the iPad, though, it’s sublime. In fact, it’s one of the best reasons to use an iPad at all.
A New Way to News
News on the iPad doesn’t feel strictly new; there’s some Flipboard DNA here, and a blocky layout reminiscent of content curators like Digg. Functionally, it combines the best of those models, thanks to a smart design and its partnerships with prominent media organizations.
When you first sign up for News, you’re asked to choose from a few dozen sources (National Geographic, The New York Times, WIRED, Slate, etc.) and topics of interest (Politics, Entertainment, Baseball, etc.) to populate your feed. Having done so, you’re escorted to the app’s For You view, a cascade of articles that align with your expressed interests. From there, just tap and read.
And is there ever a lot to tap. I’ve taken to opening Apple News each morning as a quick way to cruise through my critical news sites; there often are well over 100 stories waiting for me. Rather than overwhelming, though, it feels efficient. Some articles get large images, others just headlines. Some include a brief intro, others don’t. There’s generally enough information, though, to know if I’d like to read further, and enough variety—each downward swipe surfaces at least six new articles, from a jumble of my pre-approved sources—that my grasp of the day’s events feels something close to comprehensive.
You can get the full RSS feed effect, or closer to it, by tapping over to News’s Favorites tab, which lets you comb through all of your chosen media org’s available content. Even this, though, mostly doesn’t feel like a fire hose; partner sites like the ones mentioned above can sort their stories into any of several categories for better navigability. Non-partners fare less well, showing just one big splatter of stories. In an ideal world, I’d put in the time for deep dives into individual titles, but I’ve got two small kids and an even smaller attention span. Given the choice between total comprehensiveness and tight, timely curation, I’ll take the latter every time.
Apple’s currently building up an editorial staff, presumably to help with that, and News adjusts its offerings automatically depending on what you read, like, and share. A week in may be too early to say just how effective it is at this, but I can confirm that I’m seeing fewer stories about the Pittsburgh Pirates than I (somewhat inexplicably) was before. It’s a start. Another welcome byproduct of curation? I don’t see five versions of the same story.
As for the reading experience, stories expressly formatted for Apple News are easy to spot; they feature more interplay between images and text, and are followed by related topics and stories from within the Apple News ecosystem. They’re often beautiful, and on a Retina-display, 9.7-inch iPad, they feel like living magazine pages. In many cases, I’d rather read a WIRED article on Apple News than I would on WIRED’s own website.
Most important, perhaps, articles from these publishers remain distinctly, recognizably theirs. WIRED stories look like WIRED stories; New York magazine stories look like New York magazine stories. Cohabitating inside Apple’s platform hasn’t led to (much) loss of brand identity, at least once you’re inside a story. That’s a positive outcome, for you and for news organizations, especially compared to Facebook’s Instant Articles, another media-absorbing host that has so far bred a bland homogeny.
There’s so much that’s good about Apple News on the iPad. Unfortunately, there’s also a bit that’s not so good.
Gaps in Coverage
There are some News missteps that seem obviously fixable. A long-press of an article, for instance, coughs up three options: Share Story, Save, and Like. All fine and good, but it seems begging for a Dislike option, or something to help weed out those Pirates stories faster. If Apple News learns what to show you as you go, it seems like it would learn a lot faster with more than just positive indicators.
When using News, I also find myself wishing Apple had some sort of social graph it could tap into (where are you, Ping, when I need you?). As effective as its algorithmic and human curation have been so far, I’d love a window into what my friends are recommending. Access to links I wouldn’t have otherwise seen is, after all, at least 80 percent of what Twitter’s good for. It would also help fix Apple News’s discovery issues, which are a serious concern.
What you’ll notice about that first screen News presents you with, the one where you pick and choose how you want to source your stories, is that it is uniformly filled with large media organizations. It’s early, yet; smaller sites undoubtedly will find their way aboard as well, assuming there’s room. For now, though, my For You tab is chock full of NPR and Slate and ESPN and National Geographic. Indicating interest in a broader category, like Food and Drink or Sports, surfaces niche titles like OrganicLife and MLB Daily Dish, but these, too, are subsidiaries of media behemoths Rodale and SB Nation, respectively.
You can seek out individual titles and add them to your Favorites, as I have for Splitsider and Atlas Obscura and other sites in my regular rotation, but they clearly occupy a lower caste. As seamless an experience as News presents for its partners, outsiders currently are limited to a headline, intro, and redirect out to the site itself, which for a few days redirected only to a stalled out spinning wheel.
What’s troubling, too, both for readers and publishers, is that there’s no clear, universal fix on the horizon. Apple’s News Publishing Guide FAQ describes the Apple News Format as “currently available on a limited basis,” with no indication of if or when those limitations will be lifted. That’s a shame and, unfortunately, where business concerns and user experience collide.
“Small publishers, particularly, are sensitive to potential lost of brand identity,” says Poynter’s Edmonds. “Things like local news gets a short shrift in this kind of setting.”
Which is true! I hadn’t even thought to add The Birmingham News, a source of local interest stories that I like to dip into in small doses. Once I did, Apple News promptly plopped three blurbs, all about Auburn football, at the top of my For You page. That’s no doubt just an RSS quirk, but it’s particularly jarring next to the polish and presence of the News Format crew.
These are all addressable issues. The point today, though, is that while Apple News is great at what it does, it doesn’t do everything you might need it to. It gives you a baseline to start your day informed, but it doesn’t scratch every itch.
One last thing: There aren’t many ads in News yet. There will be, and they can be reasonably expected to degrade the overall experience, at least a skosh.
The iPad App
Despite those drawbacks—or really just the two, related drawbacks of the contrast between haves and have-nots, and difficulty surfacing interesting stories from smaller sites—when it works, when it’s at its best, News provides the most compelling case for the iPad’s existence in a long, long time.
This is what tablets are for. It’s information density without feeling cramped; big, beautiful images supporting crisply readable fonts. It’s like a TARDIS for news; a small exterior shell, capable of infinite interior expansion. I can’t say that it’s a reason to buy an iPad, but it’s kept mine from collecting dust.
Yes, iOS 9 also introduced iPad-specific features like picture-in-picture, SlideOver (which puts an app of your choice just a swipe away) and Split View (which lets two apps display real estate). Those are fine improvements, and will help multitaskers who own newer iPads.
That turns out to be, relatively speaking, not very many people. According to usage data from app analytics company Localytics, only 35 percent of iPads currently in circulation will be able to use SlideOver and picture-in-picture. Only 8 percent can take advantage of Split View.
But while more than 90 percent of iPads in use today won’t have access to the full suite of iOS 9’s new toys, all but 3 percent (every Apple tablet, in fact, except for the original iPad) can enjoy Apple News. It’s the iPad’s best new feature not just because it works so well and holds so much promise, but because it’s available to nearly everyone who owns an Apple tablet.
Apple News might exert a profound influence over the publishing industry; it might be a bust. It might figure out how to unearth hidden gems from far-flung corners of the Internet; it might become an eight-site echo chamber. That’s all in the future. Today, it’s simply one of the best reasons to take your old iPad out of whatever drawer you’ve stashed it.
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