Episode 35: The Apple News Scam

Why Apple is Profiteering and How to Avoid Falling for Their Marketing Lies

The Background

Many of you either know or have figured out that I’m a longtime Apple fan. I use their software and hardware almost exclusively and have since I’ve been 11 years old. I was that age when my folks bought us an Apple II+ computer, forever changing my life. I got so enamored with this new kind of technology - a desktop computer!!! - that I taught myself the BASIC coding language and well… never really looked back.

Ironically, well-kept Apple II+ personal computers are STILL fetching a decent price on eBay. #Amazing

I’ve come to trust Apple because - for the most part - my purchases from them have always lasted long, always worked well, and were always easy to use. I still have my original iPhone and iPod because, for me, those two products are works of art, devices which captured the imagination of the entire world and changed the landscape of technology for generations to come.

Am I saying that Apple is perfect? Uh, no. Not at all. There have been a few, notable disappointments along the way for me personally… My LCIII, to give one example, was a pile of fucking junk. It malfunctioned so frequently and so fully, that I just bought a different Mac within 18 months, something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since.

For the most part, Apple’s incredible attention to research, detail, and execution of combining hardware and software has been, for me, a winning combination.

The Game Changer

The iPhone was a huge, game-changing hit for the company. When the device was announced in 2007, they sold about 1.4 million units. Ten years later, they sold 216.75 million, a jump of over 15,000%. As of this year’s first financial quarter (or Q1), the iPhone accounted over half of every product sold by Apple.

#Whoa

Some time ago, Apple recognized that, eventually, it would need to offer other products and services to the world because their huge hit of a product had - quite literally - saturated the market. There are about 7 billion people on the planet. As of 2018, Apple had sold 2.2 billion iPhones. Clearly, the company was going to need other things to sell.

As a result, Apple created and begin selling items like the Watch and AirPods, two new categories of devices which have also taken off. They also launched a variety of streaming and software services including: Music, iCloud Drive, Arcade, TV+, Books, Pay and more. Those services alone now account for over 12 billion dollars of sales, per quarter. That’s a lot of do-ray-me, my friends.

But today, I want to talk about one of Apple’s newer services, specifically Apple News and Apple News+.

The Product

Apple News and News+ are news aggregators. News aggregators are a very useful kind of application: they import news feeds from many hundreds of different news sources all across the ideological and political spectrum and then present them all for you to choose. You simply tell the application what kind of news you wish to see — or, in some cases, which topics you prefer — and KaBlamo! Your new aggregator will serve up information from those sources or topics.

It’s pretty great. And, in Apple’s case, their product is gorgeously designed and mostly intuitive, both on iOS and on macOS as the pictures below will demonstrate.

But be careful: just beneath the surface of this eye-pleasing software lies an unfortunate scam…

The Scam

Apple maintains two different tiers for its news software:

  • News — 100% free. Provides some access to news sites, magazines, and some audio, but does not provide full access to a variety of cool features like audio narration of the news or access to paid news sites like The Wall Street Journal.

  • News+ — $9.99/mo and offers access to everything: newspapers, magazines, audio narration, reading the news offline, and sharing access with up to six member of your family.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. That’s why the entire software industry offers tiers like this. But… Apple’s gaming the system by holding freely available news stories and news sites captive and then asking you to pony up $9.99/mo to view it.

Wait, what?!

Apple’s free offering - the News app - locks down news that’s freely available on the provider’s website. Here’s one example from the LA Times that you can follow from left to right:

By my count, Apple is engaging in this practice for: The New Yorker, The LA Times, Bloomberg News, The Star, The San Diego Union Tribute, The San Francisco Chronicle, Vanity Fair, People, The Advocate, The Houston Chronicle, The San Antonio Express News, Mac World (?!?), PC Magazine, and House Beautiful.

Here’s a video I assembled with the instances that I’ve collected thus far.

As the movie above demonstrates, every one of the stories I tried to read on News was blocked even though that news story was freely available on the publisher’s website and easily findable using a simple web search.

Worth noting: I say “freely available” and not “free” because news isn’t free.

Research to write an article takes time, effort, fact-checking, collaboration, asking for comment from those affected and editorial effort to make right. It takes creating graphics, movies, and a process involving many scores of human hours.

That kind of investment takes time and effort, so it’s not free. Ahem… ❤️ 👍🏼 👌

But, if a news site decides to make their stories freely available without requiring a subscription (also called “erecting a paywall”) then what Apple is doing is profiteering. That wreaks of greed.

“Hey, David,” you reply, “I noticed that a few of those websites only give you limited, free access. Just look at this article from Vanity Fair, one of the publications on your list…”

That’s correct, smart reader! Vanity Fair gives away four articles a month via my web broswer. I therefore want the same behavior in my News Aggregator. But Apple doesn’t provide that same courtesy via News. Instead, they lie that a subscription to News+ is available to view the articles in question. That’s still profiteering.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times dropped its relationship with Apple and the News platform in the summer of 2020. Some of the reasons why include:

  • Apple taking 50% of all News+ monthly subscription fees, then dividing the remaining 50% among all participating newspapers and magazines.

  • Apple taking 30% of the profits from any new subscription sign-ups for that publication.

Reviews from well-regarded publications like MacRumors, DigiDay, Fortune (pay wall), and TechCrunch have panned what Apple is doing from the financial perspective. However, I don’t see that anyone has covered that Apple is now selling access to freely available articles online.

So I reached out to Apple myself. They, unsurprisingly, declined to comment:

The Solution to the Scam

The best way to avoid Apple’s profiteering is by using another news aggregator.

While Apple’s new aggregator is slick, there are MANY alternatives which are free and will - unlike Apple - provide access to freely available news stories. Even better, the best alternatives also feature user accounts, allowing you to share preferences across all of your digital devices.

Here are the options that I have used previously and/or continue to use today in no particular order.

Great News Aggregators

News360

News360 was the first news aggregator application I ever used, starting back in about 2010. It was and still is 100% free which boggles the mind. It’s simple to use and - best of all - it’s really easy to add subjects/topics that I like. News360 has a pleasing user interface and offers HUNDREDS of different topics to which you can subscribe…

It’s available via any computer on their website, and they have apps for iOS (14,000 reviews rating it 4.5 out of 5 stars) and Android (32,000 reviews, rating it 4.25 out of 5 stars). I continue to use the website and iOS app from time to time.

Potential drawbacks include:

  • It’s not as highly-polished or graphically pleasing as News or some of the other options on this list.

  • You can’t add feeds to specific publications (called “RSS” feeds)

Flipboard

Flipboard is hugely popular because it was the first news aggregator application to set itself apart from the pack by offering a pleasing and smooth graphic interface to its product. It’s easy to use, especially when it comes to adding topics or subjects that you like. In fact, every topic you might like - in my case, movies - has a series of SUB-TOPICS from which you also get to choose. Slick.

Flipboard is 100% free, easy to navigate, and offers a gorgeous user interface. It’s available on iOS (over 257,000 reviews, with a rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars), Android (1.3 million reviews, with a rating of 4 out of 5 stars), and Windows.

It’s popular for some good reasons, friends.

Potential drawbacks include:

  • Their “Flipboard TV” product - which gives access to all kinds of video content - is only available on Android. To watch it without commercials, it’s $2.99/mo.

  • Although you can add feeds to specific publications (called “RSS” feeds) but the process is cumbersome and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Inoreader

Inoreader, a longtime favorite of mine, is a far-more-customizable news aggregator than either News360 or Flipboard. That’s because along with the ability to choose specific topics, you can also add specific publications you’d like to follow. Inoreader does this via an old-but-still-fabulous piece of tech called RSS (or “Really Simple Syndication”) that got popular thanks to Netscape back in 1999.

#ThanksNetscape ❤️ 👍🏼 👌

Like Flipboard and News360, Inoreader is free and offers a website for computer access along with apps for both iOS and Android. That means you can have a similar experience across all of your digitial devices. On its website, Inoreader keeps your publications organized by either subject or, if you prefer, create your own folders and organizing structure, just like you’d do on your computer.

From left to right you can see:

  1. How I’ve set up my Inoreader feed to include news sources from around the world and across the political spectrum.

  2. How a story I click on in my “Top News” folder opens in the browser with a large graphic.

  3. How clicking on the title of that news story opens the article up on the website of the provider (in this case the BBC) a new browser tab.

Unlike Flipboard and News360, Inoreader offers more advanced functionality because it can handle ANY kind of feed. Want to organize your favorite podcasts? No problem! Want to search all of your feeds for a particular search term? Can do!

In fact, if you’re willing to pay either $20 or $50/year for the “supporter” or “pro” level tiers, Inoreader provides even more kick-ass features including integrating newsletter subscriptions (like mine!), integration with social media, annotating articles with your own notes for reading later, removing all advertisments, integration with YouTube and IFTTT and much, much more.

If you’re a news junkie or someone who loves to organize your digital media in ways that are super customized, then Inoreader is a FABulous option.

Potential drawbacks include:

  • Because it does so much, there is a learning curve, so expect to devote some time to making the application work exactly as you like.

  • The graphic interface is not nearly as slick or easy to follow as Flipboard or News360.

NewsFlash

My honorable mention award goes to NewsFlash. That’s because the way it organizes the news: it groups reporting from many publications about a single story under the same sub-heading. It’s super obvious move that I don’t see used ANYWHERE else on the Internet. This is a powerful - and, often, fascinating - way to see how the various news agencies and wire services report and headline the same story:

NewsFlash, like Inoreader, allows you to add RSS feeds from any publication or website that offers one. To get you started, it comes pre-equipped with a rather extensive list of newspapers so you don’t need to add news sources to get started. But, since I’m from Philadelphia and - since the Philadelphia Inquirer wasn’t included by NewsFlash - I added the RSS feed myself.

More importantly, NewsFlash also pre-installs RSS feeds from news sources from countries around the world. So if you prefer news from other countries, NewsFlash has you covered. It’s very impressive, actually. A simple swipe in the top nav bar to the left shows all of the nations that come included in their app. Press a country’s flag and… away you go!

Potential drawbacks include:

  • NewsFlash is ONLY available for iOS and not for Android or desktop computers. #Sad

  • Not a very pleasing or graphically focused user interface

  • The paid version to remove all ads ($1.99) is totally worth it but learning to find and then add RSS feeds might take you 15-30min of time.


And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber, either paid or free.

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