Independent journalism is the cornerstone of every democracy they say but inevitably those in power may pick and choose who they wish to talk to and on what terms. Election results can be swayed by both good or bad media coverage and hence many journalists are pressured by their editors to support one party rather than another if that media outlet isn’t given the access they want. The symbiosis is fascinating but also dangerous as the results can affect the direction of an entire country and the lives of the individuals within.
There can be little doubt that at the moment in consumer electronics technology, Apple is the King. Their iPods, iPhones and iPads have passionate followings in massive and growing numbers turning over enormous profits and whilst Googles Android platform is larger by marketshare, the only company succeeding in the mobile space using their platform and services is Samsung and their profits and followings are not of the same scale as Apples. In the business of technology journalism or perhaps, mainstream blogging, access to the King is much sought-after. Those that upset the King are banished (see Gizmodo for the theft of the iPhone 4 prototype) whilst those still in favour are given review units, event invitations and occasionally private demonstrations. For this privilege those in favour are able to publish the articles that attract the most pageviews the soonest that ultimately drive their income.
The dilemma: What to do if you think the King is making rubbish? Do you soft-pedal it? Tone it down perhaps? Or do you tell it like you see it and risk falling out of favour? In the last few months “The Verge” has copped a lot of flack from tech pundits around the world as the once darling child of Apple was denied a review unit for both the latest iPhone and now it seems the latest iPad - something that hasn’t happened since its inception, or to follow the key players back via This is My Next and Engadget for years prior.
Reading through recent Verge articles there appears to be a growing anti-Apple sentiment or perhaps a ‘tiring’ of Apple news that, when denied by staff members, the denials simply feed the belief that there is something more to it. Joshua Topolsky has recently posted his indifference to iOS 7 and their ties with Google from outside at least, appear to be growing stronger with exclusive looks at Google Glass.
We know that the 5s is still supply constrained which means review units weren’t freely available just prior to launch. With the iPad Air it seems a day after launch that it is not so constrained. Assuming there is a limited number released for technical reviews, just like in musical chairs someone was going to be left without a review unit when the music stopped, whoever that was would be unimpressed. The other theory is that on the scale of product manufacturing Apple now enjoys, the choose to restrict the quantity released for pre-launch reviews. No matter how you slice it the number of pre-launch review units was fixed and Apple decided that those entities that were unlikely to give a positive enough review or perhaps reach the audience they wanted to be reached1 would ultimately miss out. If they had more review units, maybe this would not have happened? For the 5S perhaps, but now the iPad Air as well? It seems very deliberate. It’s also interesting to note that Macworld also does not receive review units of late and for a publication heavily focussed on the Mac one has to wonder what criteria Apple use to determine pre-release eligibility.
There is much to debate about what constitutes good blogging and good journalism. In my mind the essence is to provide a balanced perspective that includes as many influencing factors as possible coupled with good investigative research. In tech blogs each device should be evaluated on its own merits without bias and if The Verge or any other blog does that - irrespective of whether it may put them at odds with King - then it’s the right move. Maintaining journalistic integrity has to come above all else otherwise readers will ultimately abandon you.
Whether you believe that The Verge have crossed a line journalistically or not, the more important question is whether it’s fair and reasonable that Apple withhold access to pre-launch devices as they have. No matter whether they are made to wait a week, both publications will publish a review once the units are on sale. The urge to release something quickly will make the review less useful and hopefully there will be a measured delay where the reviewer can get a better feel for the device before it review is published.
The more I think about this the more I have to wonder what Apple has to gain by this approach. Yes, you deny those out of favour early pageviews and hence revenue. It ends there.
You can’t prevent those publications from purchasing their own device, testing it and reviewing it however they choose once that product is released and then they will still get pageviews. Not as many, true, but that’s all. If the choice is being coerced into writing favourable reviews or not get early access then I would suggest that cost is too high and Macworld, The Verge or any other responsible publication should write what they believe to be true: the King be damned.
As much as it is actually possible to determine what kind of audience you’re reaching between Daring Fireball, The Loop, The Verge or Macworld. I’d suggest that it’s not actually possible to differentiate in a measurable or meaningful way. ↩︎