Apple News provides a mediocre reading experience

Apple News should be my kind of service. I’m a media hack with too many opinions about the news and a propulsive need to keep across it at some level. And I believe in the news: I’ve worked in newsrooms and seen first hand the positive effects the media can have on people.

But I can’t stand Apple News. And News+ was a real disappointment.

There are a few reasons. Curating your feed is tedious and the stories that were served to you ranged from on point to baffling in their subject matter. But the main problem was simple: News provides a bad reading experience.

Bleeding edge news, bleeding eyes

A platform’s dedicated news app shouldn’t provide a worse reading experience than your web browser or any RSS app.

That goes double if you’re charging a subscription fee.

Apple News and News+ need to provide a best in class reading experience. They don’t. They don’t even respect your choice of light or dark mode.

Here’s how my average experience in News played out like so:

  • Open app filled with enthusiasm
  • Scroll through my feed
  • Ignore all the entertainment news that keeps popping up for some reason
  • Ignore the low-rent ads
  • Find something interesting; tap it
  • Recoil in horror as my dark-mode feed changes to an article with an obnoxiously bright white background with text I can’t customise

I dislike reading on screens. I spend a lot of time optimising my experience to be as less-dreadful as possible. That means living in Safari’s reader mode when I’m browsing the web, for example. It’s just plain better than not. I don’t care about any given website’s branding or stylistic flair: just give me your story and get out of the way. RSS readers, at their best, provide the same basic experience.

Apple News doesn’t. It’s a shallower, less malleable, more actively painful reading experience. News+ is even worse – some of its magazines aren’t even optimised for the platform, making their articles difficult to access and navigate.

Finding the good stuff

All of this would matter less if it was better at surfacing worthwhile news and articles. But it’s only okay. Algorithmic suggestions for anything are hard to get right. It may be even more difficult for news.

I have a clear sense of what I want. Maybe that’s part of the problem. I know the topics I want to read about and, in some cases, I know the news sources I want to read. But Apple News makes it hard to control what I see: I can choose outlets I like and subject tags I want but, when I open the app, I have no idea how it’s going to interpret any of that.

So I’ve chosen a few Australian papers – say, The Age and the ABC – in my sources list and “Australian politics” and “Australian government” as topics. Am I going to get an emphasis on those newspapers’ political coverage? Or am I going to get whatever’s popular from those outlets and a mix of those topics sprinkled around from wherever?

In my experience, it was the former. I got more sports and entertainment news from The Age than I knew what to do with.

Sometimes, that can be fine. You get surprises and interesting stories you wouldn’t see otherwise. But the noise to signal ratio was untenable. I flicked through countless stories I had no interest in just to find a few that were interesting. And, even then, they were unpleasant to read. (And then there the full-screen ads for awful products and services.)

Sure, I could spend time “liking” and “disliking” stories to help train News. But why would I spend that time doing something vague and obscure – what’s it really doing, anyway? – when I could spend thirty minutes curating a set of RSS feeds to deliver news in the areas I’m interested in from a variety of news sources I know can deliver high quality journalism?

News+ went some way towards ameliorating that problem by providing magazine and newspaper editions but, ultimately, it has a limited range and it’s cumbersome to navigate.

Breaking: do better

Apple News is great for a lot of people. I’ve seen what it can do for a news story: it drives a lot of traffic. People are using the app and it works. It’s good enough – I’m the outlier.

But it’s not best in class. When Safari provides a better reading experience than your bespoke news app, something’s gone wrong.

Apple made its name off of opinionated, considered design that convinced people they were using the best. And they clearly care about News and see it as a pillar, albeit a small one, of their service offering moving forward.

It’s just a shame they’ve sat at “good enough” with it for so long.

© 2019 cory zanoni.