After setting it aside for a very long while I ended up reopening Apple News when someone posted an Apple News link.
Apple News URLs — or at least the constantly changing effort to get to the actual URL of a story posted there — are one of the reasons I quit using Apple News. The other was a general lack of control of the experience: You can choose topics and sites to follow, but you’re never sure what content surfaces and why. If you block a site, it blows holes in your feed that Apple somewhat sulkily insists on informing you are there. And this time, having read Apple News daily for about a week, another reason is how much content in the somewhat curated Apple News experience is just affiliate linking.
I went to college for journalism and I worked in online media for close to 15 years. I am sympathetic to media outlets and understand a lot of the challenges they face. I trudged through a year of layoffs during the dot com bust, and then went through a bunch of austerity measures in 2008-2009. I experienced the clammy feeling of working for a tech journalism network that got snapped up by a “performance marketing” company to do lead generation masquerading as journalism.
I do not think affiliate linking is an ethical answer to the sustainability challenges online journalism faces.
You can hear the rationalizing in headlines that solemnly inform you that some gadget or another is “the lowest price we’ve ever seen,” as if you’re being done a special service. I did an informal count on a few sites Apple News pushes and saw upwards of 20-30 percent of the content pushing affiliate links.
You can see sites that painstakingly track the release cadence of companies like Apple and would quickly advise you to hold off on a purchase in any un-subsidized content try to push fire sales on old tech. They know it’s hitting the market at that price precisely because companies are clearing inventory to make room for the soon-to-arrive thing these same sites would advise you to wait for if you can. That isn’t ethical, even if you squint and try to act as if the pitch is targeting savvy trailing-edge buyers.
And you can see a kind of coverage for Kickstarter/IndieGoGo stuff that doesn’t bother to mention that the product they’re “reporting” on doesn’t actually exist yet. Click through to read a “review” and you realize they got to handle a prototype, if that, but there’s the referrer link to sites that are sometimes interesting storefronts, but are also sometimes just casinos if your crowdfunded entrepreneur flakes.
The thing is, these same sites are completely right to say, “well what, then?” Everyone is running ad blockers, and understanding how to install a paywall-subverting bookmarklet is pretty much a basic adult life skill at this point. I don’t know what the answer is, and don’t think pointing to boutique sites like Daring Fireball is any kind of answer.
When I sit and think it through, what I come up with is that it stops being a content, delivery, tech, or logistics problem and reveals itself to be a basic problem of economic organization: A lot of the sites I wish would knock off the affiliate link junk are run by people who used to be working journalists who felt they had to strike out on their own to do good work, or who simply got downsized. To do what they love and make a living, something has to give. It’d be nice if we were economically organized to let them do that without having to resort to the hustleification of everything. It’s only the market “working” if your conception of a working market is something that helps Apple and Dell efficiently clear obsolete backstock, or helps Amazon clear more handling fees for drop-shipped, ripoff junk.
Anyhow, I’m deleting Apple News again. Personal blogs and non-commercial social feeds work fine, and take way less energy than reading past all the commercial content, losing time to “reviews” and “reporting” about nonexistent products, or wondering if the “top 5” things are actually their assessment of the top 5, or if the actual top 5 are something else, but not available on a site with an affiliate program.