Apple News launches in Canada

After 3 and a half years of waiting, Apple News is here! It came bundled with the iOS 12.2 release that was made available for download on Monday. As soon as you install the update and your device restarts, the News app will appear on the first page of your home screen on both iPhone and iPad.

The way it works is pretty straightforward. Remember RSS feeds? That’s what it reminds me of. It’s a news aggregator - Apple does not produce its own content for News. However, it’s an editorialized news aggregator. Some people will like that, others not so much. Top stories are hand-picked by Apple News editors, but users can strongly influence what they see. More on that later.

The idea behind the News app is that you get to make your own newspaper and read it. It feels just like you’re reading one, too. You will see stories from a plethora of newspapers and digital publications all jumbled together in the Today view. That’s the home page of the app, if you will. The Today view is the one that most resembles an actual newspaper. It is divided in different sections: a sports section, a business section, a gardening section, a computer section, a fashion section. Just like an actual newspaper. You can grab the section you like and read through it. Just like an actual newspaper. Or, you can read your briefing, which is a collection of the main headlines of the day, a lot like the front page of... an actual newspaper! Of course, you can also pick a single topic to explore or an individual publication to read.

Unlike an actual newspaper, the content is tailored to the user’s preference. You can follow channels (publications like The New York Times or The Globe & Mail) and topics (interests like Canadian politics or Playstation games). Everything you read has two different hearts in the top right corner that act as like and dislike buttons. When you tap ‘like’ on a story from a channel or topic you enjoy, you’ll get to see more of it in sections like the Today view. When you tap ‘dislike’ on a topic, you’ll see less of it. When you tap ‘dislike’ on a publication, you will never see it again (until you un-dislike it yourself). All of this means that you get to create your own sections in your own newspaper, and unlike an actual newspaper, each section is comprised of a variety of sources that you trust and love. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall victim to the echo chamber syndrome when you curate your own content and I’m not sure you can avoid it here any more than you can on Facebook. Even if you avoid disliking topics and channels that challenge your values, Apple’s on-device AI learns what you enjoy reading over time and algorithms will skew what you see. The only suggestion I can make is to go ahead and subscribe to news outlets you would not normally read, but no one does that.

Everything I have written about so far is free, but there is also a paid tier called News+. It gives you access to The Star and 300+ magazines, 30 of which are Canadian publications (I’ve spotted Maclean’s, Hello! Canada, Ottawa Magazine, The Walrus, Chatelaine, L’actualité). These numbers will undoubtedly fluctuate over time as deals with publishers end and new ones begin.

Some magazines have been specially optimized for the Apple News Format, like Wired and National Geographic. Reading those is very intuitive once you get acclimated to the way the rest of the app works. These optimized publications try to take advantage of the digital format to tell stories in a way you just cannot convey in a printed issue. There are lots of animations and cool scrolling effects, and you can access whatever article you wish to read right from the table of contents just by tapping on it. I think it’s very well done, but not by itself a reason to subscribe. Other non-optimized magazines are simply served in PDF files, and let me tell you, reading those is a nightmare when you’re coming from a publication made using the Apple News Format. Scrolling through them is clunky, you have to pinch and zoom to read properly, and it’s especially frustrating on the smaller screen of an iPhone. Not a very good experience.

Everything that comes with News+ is downloadable, and you can set it up so that new issues of a magazine you like are automatically downloaded and stored for offline access as they release, a lot like podcast apps do with new episodes. News+ costs $12.99 a month and everyone gets a no-strings-attached free trial for one month.

The paid tier is only a good deal if you like a bunch of these magazines and you’re not down with spending a fortune subscribing to each one individually, and if you like reading The Star. Otherwise, the free tier has plenty to offer you.

After 24 hours of use, I can say I’m a pretty big fan of Apple News overall and will keep on using the free version.

  • I like how you can toggle notifications for each publication individually, or turn them off altogether.

  • I like how it really brings back the feel of reading the paper.

  • I like how easy it is to tell the app what you like and don’t like to see.

  • I like how everything you enjoy reading comes together in one app without any ads.

  • I don’t like the News+ offering at the moment - I wish Canada would get more bonus newspapers (users in the US get access to the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times).

  • I don’t like how hard it is to tell what comes standard with the app and what content is part of News+ once you have activated your free trial - it makes the decision to cancel or resub much harder than it should be.

  • I don’t like how Apple managed discoverability - you pretty much have to resort to trial and error in the search bar to determine what publications they offer.

But that’s me. Give it a go and maybe you’ll feel differently.