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How much control will Apple have over news app content?

The initial rejection of an editorial-cartoon application from the App Store raise concerns about Apple's potential to exercise control over editorial content.

Mark Fiore's job is making fun of political figures. And he's actually quite good at it, according to the Pulitzer Prize Committee.

Mark Fiore
Editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore won a Pulitzer Prize this week. A few days later Apple CEO Steve Jobs called the rejection of his iPhone app a mistake. Mark Fiore

Earlier this week it named him the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning, but Apple rejected an iPhone app containing Fiore's cartoons in December. The reason? Apple said applications that ridicule public figures are not allowed.

That presents a problem for Fiore, and all editorial cartoonists and political satirists who'd like to submit their work to the App Store for that matter, because, well, that's what they do.

Luckily for Fiore, the Nieman Journalism Lab took up his cause and wrote about his app's rejection. A day later Apple relented, and on Friday asked Fiore to resubmit. The New York Times reported Friday afternoon that Steve Jobs himself called it "a mistake that's being fixed." That's great for Fiore, but not every political satirist is a Pulitzer winner who can get publicity for his app's unfair rejection.

So what does that mean for the future of news or editorial products on the iPad and iPhone? It's safe to assume that quashing political satire isn't Apple's goal here. But it's a legitimate concern for the journalism community that to be featured on the App Store they have to submit their news content to a company unafraid to exercise what sometimes seems like arbitrary control. The thinking goes, what if Apple finds a headline offensive? Or what if there's an unfavorable article about Apple itself even? That's not to say Apple would do that, but its inconsistent handling of App Store submissions sets a troubling precedent.

The rejected-then-unrejected brouhaha surrounding Fiore's cartoon app, and others like it--the Mad Magazine artist's Bobble Rep appcomes to mind--also illuminate the central issue facing Apple with the App Store right now. The company's decision to tightly control what is and is not allowed on the iPhone or iPad has led it to develop a review process that is not sustainable.

New York Times on the iPad
The New York Times on the iPad Business Wire

Having individuals look at each one of the hundreds of thousands of apps that pour into the App Store and accurately and consistently police them for both technical and content issues is impossible now and will only be more so as the App Store inevitably grows. The solution would be to have clear, stated rules of what can or can't be put on the App Store, but that's not what Apple has chosen. And that gray area is what scares developers who put a lot of work into their apps, and who could be rejected outright for some subjective problem an App Store reviewer has found with that particular app.

Which brings us back to the news issue. The problem of Apple's lack of transparency with App Store rules and tendency toward control is compounded by Apple luring the print news industry to the iPad. It's a device that (rightly or wrongly) is being praised as a way to save print publications. And that control inevitably raises new questions about Apple's relationship with newspapers, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for example, that are putting their content on the App Store via paid applications.

The Columbia Journalism Review has issued a call to media companies not to get too cozy with Apple. Writes Ryan Chittum:

Look, let's face it. The iPad is the most exciting opportunity for the media in many years. But if the press is ceding gatekeeper status, even if it's only nominally, over its speech, then it is making a dangerous mistake. Unless Apple explicitly gives the press complete control over its ability to publish what it sees fit, the news media needs to yank its apps in protest.

Yes, this is that serious. It needs to wrest back control of its speech from Apple Inc.

The CJR then points out the obvious: newspapers and magazines wouldn't put itself under the influence of the government like this, so why is a corporation, especially one with control-freak tendencies like Apple, any different?

If the iPad does become a significant revenue source for print publications who turn their newspapers or magazines into iPad apps, it is logical that it could be harder for them to stand up to Apple.