What’s your go-to way to get news? For the past year and half, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to read news. While I might just be too picky, the journey to find the right tools has been endlessly frustrating.
Content-wise, I like to read about topics that interest me 80% of the time, and dabble in matters outside of my interests for the remaining 20%. For example, while I’m not an avid international affairs follower, I am interested in keeping in touch with what’s happening in Hong Kong and Ukraine at the moment. But I don’t want to swim in them.
It would seem that that’s what algorithm-based curation is designed for. Before 2013, good ol’ Google Reader was my go-to. After it was sunset, I migrated almost entirely to Twitter. I realized that, as opposed to following publications or blogs directly, my feed is a lot better if I mostly seek out and follow real people who retweet high-quality articles. This serves as a filter to the flood of automatic postings from publication accounts.
The thing about real people though is that they aren’t just there to serve me great news. Like myself, these people also tweet about their life moments, funny memes, and other lighthearted stuff. I enjoy them, but sometimes they are a distraction to news-reading.
So when Twitter got too chatty, I moved to Apple News which was launched in 2015. It used to be a low-key, blog- and publication-focused app via which you can subscribe to paid publications. But then, in 2019, Apple News+ happened.
Apple News+ is also something I really wanted to like, but try after try, I reach the same conclusion that it’s not for me. The alluring tag line goes: “Full access to hundreds of magazines and leading newspapers. All in one place.” The “leading newspapers” part is a joke. Not only does Apple News not have most leading newspapers (The Washington Post? Financial Times? Economics? The New York Times?), the few reputable newspapers it provides are littered with ads. That right there is a deal breaker for me. I don’t want to pay $9.99 a month, access less than half of the leading newspapers out there, and still have to be peppered with ads. (In addition to content-related gripes, there’s also a full paragraph of UI issues that I saved down below if you are curious.)
My frustration with Apple News led me to a realization: maybe most people don’t care as much about what shows up in their feed. So I started looking for things that tailor to picky readers.
An app called Tonic started showing up in my Twitter feed a few months ago. It’s an app that curates less than a handful of articles per day for you to read. An on-device machine learning algorithm privately tunes the curation based on what you read. The app is cute and first-day suggestions were great, but I could never get it to suggest articles of the same quality again. Design-wise, presumably because of the intensive tracking of your reading habits, you are locked into Tonic’s own web view, which means no Reader View, no dark mode, and no font size adjustments. Of course, it’s possible to jump into Safari, but then you’d lose the ability to train the on-device model. So there’s that.
After trying these 3 algorithm-based news apps, I started looking into manual tools that let me read in batch what I saved from elsewhere.
I gave Pocket a shot. It’s super versatile and has been around for a long time. You can save a link via Share Sheet to read it later, email a link to Pocket, subscribe to a source directly within the app, or more. The only issue with an app that I have to feed articles into is, well, lack of curation. If algorithm doesn’t curate things for me, I want to rely on email newsletters. There’s no good way for Pocket to automatically pick up links from emails that come from noreply addresses.
Soon I found myself in the land of RSS. Surprisingly, in 2019, there are still amazing RSS apps out there. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with RSS is paywall. There’ aren’t many of them with the ability to login and surpass paywalls. The closest I’ve gotten to a perfect solution with is Reeder 4 for iOS and iPadOS. The app is well designed, functional, and supports many standard iOS features like dark mode, Safari View Controller, dynamic text size, etc.. It even comes with a way to extract full articles from excerpts that RSS feeds often times give you. For example, I set “always use reader mode” for Wired, whose RSS feeds only provide excerpts. As long as I made sure that I was logged into Wired in Safari, the web view would automatically pick up that credential and fetch me the full article. But inexplicably, (and yes I’ve emailed them about this), Reeder strips of all images in Reader Mode. Whyyy? Furthermore, even if image-stripping wasn’t an issue, do I really want yet another inbox to take care of?
I found myself increasingly tired of finding a satisfactory solution for consuming news, so I made this check list:
- (P0) gets content behind paywalls (that I paid for obviously)
- (P0) no ads, just content
- (P1) infinite feed, not inbox style, guilt-free reading
- (P2) can be reformatted and respects native Safari View Controller features like dark mode, reader mode, etc.
- (P2) Works well with newsletters
So far, I use a combination of Twitter and email newsletters to meet the first P0. Do you know of a solution that can meet these other criteria?
1. Apple News app itself is probably one my least favorite apps by Apple in terms of usability. The app has 3 tabs: “Today”, “News+”, and “Following”. “Today”, which is littered with crap like “5 things to do every morning to be successful,” also interweaves super insightful long reads from reputable sources. Talk about cognitive dissonance here. The “News+” tab makes things even more confusing. Apple News+ seems almost entirely designed with magazines in mind, and news as a secondary supplement. Even though I clearly don’t care about celebrity gossip, the app still thinks that one day I might give into the temptation of a Vanity Fair cover story about some actress I don’t care about. Logic aside, the overall design is claustrophobic and loud. Imagine you read a Word document where every sentence is in a title font, that’s what using Apple News feels like. It feels like the work of a junior designer at best.