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March 2, 2023, 12:57 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Apple News too corporate for you? Try this app

OptOut aims to be a daily news app “100% free from corporate media narratives.”

After Alex Kotch got into the habit of scrolling Apple News every morning in 2020, he started to find the offering a little limited.

Kotch, who was an investigative reporter at the Center for Media and Democracy, noticed that just a few news outlets were repeatedly featured in the app, which he’d started using because it was pre-installed on his iPhone.

“I got tired of seeing the same kind of major media outlets’ coverage,” Kotch said. “I didn’t see some outlets that I happened to like more, or that I thought would add nuance.”

So Kotch talked through an idea for a new app with his colleague and friend Walker Bragman. They came up with OptOut News, an aggregation app that shares news, podcasts, and streaming video from “exclusively independent” news publishers.

Kotch and Bragman launched OptOut Media Foundation as a nonprofit in 2020 with a mission to “educate the public about current events and help sustain a diverse media ecosystem by promoting and assisting independent news outlets.” The foundation is funded through individual donations, grants, paid memberships, and events.

The app, which Kotch and Bragman announced as the foundation’s first product in 2020, launched a year ago this month. Besides Kotch and Bragman, there are 25 paid contractors and volunteers who help out with the operation, including three freelance editors who write their own newsletters and an additional four journalists who curate the stories that appear in the app.

OptOut, which is still in beta, has four tabs: Headlines (a curated feed of stories, refreshed by humans three or four times a day), Favorites (for saving stories), Your Feed (where users can select outlets they want to follow), and Livestreams (for watching or listening in real time). When you read stories in the Apple News app, the share links are Apple News links. In OptOut, you share the original link to the outlet.

The app includes 180 news outlets so far, including newspapers, magazines, digital publications, podcasts, video channels, and live streams from Twitch and YouTube. Many of the selections have a decidedly progressive bent; one App Store reviewer noted that “it feels a little like a left wing alternative to what we read about as the right wing media ecosystem.” (2024 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson loves the app!) National and subject-specific publishers include The Markup, The Appeal, Grist, the Prison Journalism Project, and The Nation. OptOut also includes content from local and regional news publishers like North Carolina Policy Watch, Ohio Capital Journal, Source New Mexico, and Minnesota Reformer.

“Having worked at several good, important newsrooms that were doing great work but didn’t really have the distribution down, I wanted to create a service that would help pull these newsrooms and audiences together,” Kotch said.

OptOut’s two main requirements for a news outlet to join its network is that it be financially independent and that it consistently produce reliable and accurate journalism. Outlets are also supposed to support fair labor practices (no “anti-union activities” allowed) and, if they’re “opinion- or interview-based publication[s]”, they shouldn’t promote or legitimize “conspiracy theories or other false content.”

Here’s what “financially independent” means, according to OptOut:

  • Not owned by a commercial corporation or financial institution (ex. Comcast or Alden Global Capital).
  • Not primarily funded by one or a handful of corporations or corporate foundations. (An outlet that runs ads is fine, but if it is mostly funded by, say, Google or Facebook grants, it does not qualify.)
  • Not publicly traded.
  • Free of financial conflicts of interest. (For example, an outlet that covers the energy industry that gets substantial funding from an energy company or its affiliated foundation does not qualify.)

“If there’s a publication that specializes in, let’s say, energy and climate reporting, and they’re sponsored by Chevron, that’s disqualifying for us, because that presents a conflict of interest,” Kotch said, mentioning recent events at Semafor. “Politico’s energy podcast has some good stuff, but they’re also sponsored by big oil and gas, and to us that’s just not trustworthy. Americans’ trust in the media is at an all-time low. We can’t risk having people not trust the news that we’re pushing out. And frankly, we don’t have faith in news that has financial conflicts of interest.”

On Thursday morning, the top stories on my Apple News included The Washington Post on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the G-20 Summit, USA Today on the Biden administration going after Covid relief scammers, ABC News on snow emergencies in California, CNN on a Pennsylvania man who allegedly tried to bring explosives onto a plane, and Reuters on scientists finding a hidden corridor in the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo.

On OptOut News, meanwhile, the top stories were the season three finale episode of the A Matter of Degrees climate podcast, a Tennessee Lookout story on the Supreme Court’s skepticism of student loan forgiveness, a Sludge report on congressional leaders accepting dark money, the Minnesota Reformer on election workers being harassed in the state, and a Documented story about a New York City college that shut down.

“We’re a foundation and we have our own moral ethics, not just in terms of how one does journalism, but in terms of our society,” Kotch said. “We believe in equality for all people, we believe in acknowledging climate science, and trying to make the world a better place. We believe that diversity is incredibly important and that communities of color and other demographics have often been left out of the news and the mainstream news conversation. We want outlets that acknowledge these things, at least somewhat.”

OptOut is free to use and has been downloaded more than 13,000 times in the Apple Store. Users aren’t required to register or give OptOut any personal data, though they’re prompted to sign up for its four weekly newsletters — OptOut News, OptOut Climate, OptOut LGBTQ+, and OptOut New York. All are grounded in promoting relevant stories from the partner network and are also starting to run their own original reporting and analysis. Kotch said the newsletters have more than 6,000 subscribers and each averages an open rate of 40%.

OptOut is also experimenting with paid content for its recurring donors, like a podcast called Gilded Age about present-day inequality and one called OptOutCast that interviews journalists at independent news outlets and features their work. Members also get access to a private Discord to connect with OptOut’s team.

“The hope is that when people are reading, they have a healthier, more diverse diet of news on a daily basis,” Kotch said.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     March 2, 2023, 12:57 p.m.
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