Apple News is quickly becoming a news behemoth, rivaling other social media giants in terms of its influence. Slate reported in a September profile that referrals to its site from Apple News had tripled in a year, surpassing even Facebook as the top driver of traffic to the site. A The Information article cited a source claiming that "Apple News has generated half of Vox.com’s daily traffic at times." And no wonder: the app comes preinstalled in the hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and other products Apple has sold.
It's also curated by a only handful of editors, whose identities Apple refuses to disclose. In one recent profile, the company even demanded that the second-most senior editor not be named … and the Times obliged.
The story published a few weeks ago (yes, I'm very late to this, there was an election) detailed how the top stories on Apple News are chosen personally by editor-in-chief Lauren Kern and a mysterious deputy:
One morning in late August, Apple News’s editor in chief, Lauren Kern, huddled with a deputy to discuss the five stories to feature atop the company’s three-year-old news app, which comes preinstalled on every iPhone in the United States, Britain and Australia.
National news sites were leading that day with stories that the Justice Department had backed an affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard University — a good proxy that the story mattered, said Ms. Kern’s deputy, a former editor for The New York Times whom Apple requested not be named for privacy reasons. He and Ms. Kern quickly agreed that it was the day’s top news, and after reading through a few versions, selected The Washington Post’s report because, they said, it provided the most context and explanation on why the news mattered.
Last I checked, "privacy reasons" are generally not considered a valid excuse for journalists to grant anonymity to subjects who are unquestionably newsworthy. Just about everyone in the world would like to remain private, but it's often the job of the media to make sure they do not. Whether you view Apple News primarily as a news outlet or as a corporate product, he's still one of the most powerful editors in the country.
Other reporters share my confusion on this point. "Unless there is some sort of threat to this person, I don’t understand withholding this name at Apple’s request," tweeted CNN's Erica Orden. "Apple News is just your standard powerhouse news operation, whose deputy editor cannot be named for privacy reasons," snarked Buzzfeed's Tom Gara.
Reading the piece, one gets the sense that not naming the editor might have been a prerequisite to the entire profile. The Times story also notes that its inside look at Apple News' operations came after "extensive negotiations on the terms of the interviews." The piece likewise did not name the "three editors in New York" who screened the stories before Kern and her deputy, or "the roughly 30 former journalists" who also screen stories.
The result is somewhat absurd; a piece headlined "A Human Touch At Apple News," about Apple's "human-led approach" to news, that actively obscures the name and perspectives of the humans running Apple News. This would be a dumb arrangement in any case. But when the New York Times won't name a former New York Times editor, working underneath another former New York Times editor, I also can't help but to wonder whether this is an arrangement the outlet would've made with a tech giant that didn't employ their former friends.
While Apple would not allow its editor to be named, it's not particularly difficult to deduce his identity. Of the nearly fifty Apple News employees listed on LinkedIn, there's only one male employee who once worked as a Times editor, whole profile now lists him as a "senior editor" for Apple working in the San Francisco Bay Area. His once-open Twitter account is now protected.
Neither The New York Times nor Apple responded to my inquires, so I'll treat his identity as unconfirmed. If it is him, I can understand why they wanted it to be kept secret. A May 2016 Guardian piece reported that the editor in question "has recently retweeted several articles and tweets which are critical of Donald Trump." An Internet Archive of his Twitter page from March 2016 also shows him retweeting several tweets critical of Trump and media outlets that gave the then-candidate excessive amounts of coverage.
It seems to me that Apple is risking the sort of PR fiasco that Facebook ran into back in 2016, when the news stories that appeared on its "Trending Topics" were also curated by human editors. That changed when whistleblowers told Gizmodo that they suppressed conservative news and outlets that were naturally trending. "I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz," described one curator.
Facebook has never really recovered from the resulting fallout from conservatives. I've long felt that part of the problem was Facebook's opacity; they had no response because they couldn't respond because the entire process was secretive and the curators themselves were faceless young journalists living in a liberal enclave. They demanded users trust them, and then gave them little reason to.
Now Apple appears primed to make the same mistake. I understand the institutional biases in a tech company might make them lean towards secrecy. But if they want to operate like a media outlet, they ought to be held to the same standards others would.