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Apple wants to hire editors who can beat Facebook's algorithms

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Monday afternoon, Apple posted a job listing looking to hire editors for its new Apple News product — and it seems to give us a few big hints about how the company envisions the service. Most of all, it seems to be betting that despite Facebook's proven success at attracting and delivering massive audiences for news content, there's still room in the marketplace for a less algorithmically driven approach to distributing journalism.

The listing says that successful editors "will have great instincts for breaking news" — which Facebook's approach is weak on — "but be equally able to recognize original, compelling stories unlikely to be identified by algorithms." That sounds like they want to recapture some of the spirit of the traditional newspaper front page — a product that was less about a determination of what readers were likely to read than about what readers ought to be reading.

This is what journalism veterans want the future of the industry to be

Similarly, it says that one of the editors' roles will be "ensuring that important breaking news stories are surfaced quickly, and enterprise journalism is rewarded with high visibility." This refers to stories that are usually costly to produce (in time, if not also money), and include a great deal of original reporting.

Publications do these stories because they make a big impact. But in the dog-eat-dog world of the social web, you can often gain just as much traffic — or even more — by pulling out a few key passages of someone else's enterprise work and slapping a great headline on it.

Most journalists hate this aggregation dynamic, and Apple seems to be promising to put resources behind the opposite strategy — a human editorial team that will ensure enterprise stories get the attention they deserve.

But do audiences actually want curated news?

Zigging while Facebook zags is a smart strategy for Apple. Trying to compete in the algorithmic news game seems like a fool's errand, since Facebook's algorithms are already really good. Adopting an approach that caters to the sensibilities of the people who work in journalism offers the possibility that Apple will secure a competitive advantage through closer relationships with news publishers.

That said, ultimately the curatorial approach will only work if audiences embrace it. And here, there's reason for doubt.

The original curatorial ethos of journalism, after all, arose not because anyone was asking for it but out of logistical necessity. Only so much stuff fits on the front page of a newspaper, so someone has to decide what goes there. Trying to pick based on editorial judgment is almost certainly a better idea than picking at random, so that's what newspapers did. Similarly, a magazine cover oriented around a single large image looks better than a crowded mess, so someone needs to pick a cover story.

But if it had actually been possible back in the day to algorithmically determine what choice of cover story was most likely to get subscribers to engage with newsstand readers to buy it, isn't that what editors would have picked? In particular, wouldn't they have "picked" multiple different covers based on knowledge of audience demographics in order to best target the cover to the potential reader? Magazine issues appearing at an airport shop might have had a different cover image than issues at a shop in a New York City subway station. Older subscribers might have been targeted with a different cover story than younger ones.

None of this was possible, of course, but on the internet it more or less is. And it increasingly seems to be the dominant mode of content distribution for the sensible reason that offering people stories they are likely to want to read generates a lot of reading.