Do you know how long it’s been since I talked about Apple in this column? Since January. Three months! There were some serious developments in the land of Steve Jobs—the iPad launched, iPhone OS 4 was announced and just a few days ago, the company posted its strongest non-holiday quarter ever, with more than $3 billion in profit. But you didn’t hear about any of that from me, at least not in this column. (To those whose ears I’ve chewed and eyes I’ve made bleed with hard drives full of instant messages discussing these topics, I’m sorry.)
I knew last weekend I’d be breaking the self-imposed restriction on tech companies named after fruit. That’s because Saturday night, something happened. That something will go down as one of the biggest unplanned events in Apple’s history, and the story surrounding that something is filled with mystery, intrigue and suspense (no, this is not the lead-in for an episode of Murder, She Wrote).
On Saturday night, Engadget, a tech blog, published pictures of the fourth-generation iPhone, a device that was presumed to exist but was nothing more than speculation. In the gadget community, that’s a big deal. A huge deal. Imagine if the results of an election weren’t going to be announced for months, but the winner’s name was leaked. To those (like me) that live and breathe things with “on” switches, it’s a jaw-dropper. To those financially invested in Apple, which gets 40 percent of its revenue from the iPhone, it’s extremely important. Consider this: Even the most trivial details, like rumors from a Chinese supply company once contracted to the company claiming it received an order for something, generates huge buzz. This is the motherlode.
The story from there is like something out of a script. The phone is real and was found at a bar in Calif., disguised inside an iPhone 3GS case. The pictures are blurry and at awkward angles. The next day, MacRumors, an Apple-centric blog, called the phone a Japanese knockoff. Engadget refuted that claim and backed up the authenticity of the pictures with more proof. But all of this was the tip of the iceberg.
Late Monday morning, Gizmodo, another tech blog made the big reveal: It had the device in question and offered up high-resolution pictures, a thorough analysis and disassembled it to verify this was, in fact, the next iPhone.
In the days since, details rounding out the story have come to light: The story of the phone being left at a bar was true. An Apple software engineer left it there. The person who found the device, in an attempt to return it, called Apple. The person then sold it to Gizmodo for $5,000.
There’s been a lot written on the legal implications of what transpired—California penal law mandates the finder make an effort to return the device, was the device really lost or was it stolen, is the purchase an accessory to theft—but I don’t know anything about law. But I do know slightly more than that about journalism.
The practice of buying a story is known as checkbook journalism. It’s frowned upon because of what it is—buying a story. Journalists don’t buy stories, they uncover them. They dig, they annoy people with questions they don’t want to answer, they meet people in empty parking garages late at night. I won’t, but I could tell you stories of the stuff our Investigative Reporter Chris Twarowski does to get his scoops (he’s the guy who broke the Newsday circulation scandal). None of them involve a manila envelope stuffed with unmarked 100s.
At the heart of this is a question that’s floated around since the first article was published on the Internet: Are bloggers journalists? There’s nowhere near enough room to answer that question in the detail it needs, but briefly, look at what blogging entails. The name was born from, and originally referred to, keeping online diaries. Writing about feelings and how your day went. Today, when someone says “I blog,” what do you think? That they are journalists, spending hours upon hours poring over files and making phone calls to politicians? No, you think they write about their night at the bar and post a funny video someone sent them during the day here and there.
These are all perceptions, but that’s the thing—this is the general perception of a blog and a blogger. Gizmodo didn’t do anything to make me think otherwise. So is their paying the finder of that iPhone for the device OK? Yeah, it is. Because they are a blog, staffed by bloggers, engaging in the act of blogging. When a scoop is financed, it’s not journalism
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Don’t take this column as me boycotting the leak. I must have read Gizmodo’s breakdown of the new iPhone five times. And I found out about it on Twitter, where #iPhone was all over the place. So there you go: Twitter told me something useful.