There must be more to the news than the death of an owl

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A Eurasian owl died in New York City last week. Flaco the Owl, who a year ago escaped into the wild after his enclosure was vandalised, died after colliding with a building on the Upper West Side.

Though I am not a New Yorker, or an animal person, the story has proved rather harder to escape than Central Park Zoo. I am surely a little bit to blame: I am planning a trip to New York for Passover and the internet’s various recommendation engines have mistaken my interest in what art exhibitions are worth trying to see with a concern for the city’s wildlife. I then made the mistake of making a grumpy joke about wall-to-wall owl coverage on social media, putting further bars on my algorithmic prison.

One reason why the melancholy death of Flaco is hard to escape is that the story has been extensively covered: not only by the New York Times, but also NPR, the Associated Press, the Independent, Mail Online, the Guardian and a host of other publications. Rather more people, I would bet, could name Flaco than a single member of New York City Council.

When I grumbled about the prominence of the owl’s demise to a friend, they assumed that I too had discovered it on Apple News. (My friend, to be clear, is a 100 per cent satisfied customer when it comes to tedious avian news.) It is, however, absent from the only real rival to Apple News in the UK: the BBC’s news app.

That’s fitting, because the apps are pioneering two different approaches to news in the 21st century. On the one hand, you have the BBC’s edited, one-size-fits-all-approach, on the other Apple News’ personalised service.

“Everyone’s BBC homepage looks the same” versus “no two Apple News-es are alike” is just one ongoing debate over the future of news. Many of the louder and more contentious disputes revolve around who pays for it (the Indonesian government is the latest to insist that tech platforms must pay news providers for their content).

But in terms of the social function that news performs, Apple News and the BBC are among the most important platforms. Their news apps are far and away the most popular in the UK, with more than 13mn users each. And while I find Apple News’s app much more fun, useful and interesting, the BBC’s app does a better job of keeping me connected with the 65mn or so people I share an island with. This is surely part of the social role of news, rather than just reflecting a curated selection shaped by my interests.

The advantage for tech giants — and indeed news organisations — of the curated selection is that readers and users are less likely to get angry with you. Instagram’s approach to politics and news is that if you follow the BBC, you’ll get the BBC, if you follow a Labour MP, you’ll get Labour MPs — if you don’t, you’ll get nothing.

This is a fantastic way to avoid tricky conversations about whether you are platforming hate or putting your thumb on the dial of political debates. It is also a great way of creating disengaged citizens with little grasp of what is going on in their own areas, and with a better understanding of the final moments of a Eurasian owl 3,000 miles away than what shapes the places they actually live.

In some ways, the “BBC News versus Apple News” debate is a bit of a false one — many people use both. More troubling are the large number of what one might call “newsless” places that we can now cultivate for ourselves online.

I, for one, was grateful that in September 2022 both Netflix and Apple Music Classical allowed me to escape the wall-to-wall royal news that followed the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the apparent requirement that the radio play nothing too jaunty or cheerful. But that we can all, perfectly easily, go without engaging in the stories shaping the country if we choose to do so is taking isolation a little too far.

Ultimately, it is fear of the regulator that means that tech companies are reducing the reach of news and politics, because it is controversies over news and politics that cause governments to start beating a path to tech companies’ doors. And it is fear of financial failure that means media organisations are incentivised to tell me about an owl than my local council.

One thing governments could do to fix both is place the same requirements on new media companies to provide a measure of local, national and global news as they did on commercial radio and broadcast. This would mean Netflix, Spotify and others had to stream a few seconds of news between songs at regular intervals, just as their predecessors did. But please, no more owls.

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