At 2.56 in the morning on 5 May, a headline flashed on Gawker, the New York gossip site that also carries a smattering of Silicon Valley buzz. It was tentative in its phrasing: “Could Apple Buy Twitter?”
But the post boldly claimed that “a source who’s plugged into the Valley’s deal scene and has been recruited by Apple Inc. for a senior position” was saying negotiations were well under way.
Hours later, TechCrunch, a popular Silicon Valley technology news site, was reporting the same thing. The posts generated a good deal of traffic for both sites. They were picked up by numerous reputable sites and retweeted endlessly on Twitter. The TechCrunch post yielded 405 comments from readers, an unusually large response. Within 12 hours the Gawker post had been viewed 22,000 times, enough to earn it the orange flame that Gawker editors use to designate a post as hot news.
Neither story was true.
Not that it mattered to the authors of the posts. They suspected the rumour was groundless when they wrote the items. TechCrunch noted, 133 words into its story, that, “The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations.”
But they reported it anyway.
“I don’t ever want to lose the rawness of blogging,” said Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch and the author of the post. (Owen Thomas, the writer of the Gawker post, has since taken a job at NBC and did not want to comment on the record.)
Such news judgement is not unusual among blogs covering technology. For some blogs, rumours are their stock in trade. In October, for instance, Silicon Alley Insider discussed a rumour that first appeared in a “citizen journalism” section of the CNN website that Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, had had a heart attack. He hadn’t.
The truth-be-damned approach recalls an earlier era of newspapering that was memorialized in the movie classic Citizen Kane. The main character, modelled on the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, is told that a writer sent to Cuba to report a war can find no war. “You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war,” Kane replies.
W. Joseph Campbell, who chronicled the newspaper wars at the turn of the last century in a book titled Yellow Journalism, says, “It was far more freewheeling than they are today.” At least a dozen big dailies fought for an audience in New York City, but gradually papers embraced credibility to survive. “It may have meant some of the newspapers lost a lot of their pizazz,” he notes. (Campbell, who is an associate professor at the School of Communication at American University, also researched the origins of the Citizen Kane quotation and concluded that it was unlikely that Hearst uttered a similar phrase.)
But seeking credibility may be a less-important strategy for the blogs at this stage. Arrington, a lawyer, is quick to point out that he has no journalism training. He is at ease, even high-minded, in explaining the decisions to print unverified rumours.
Arrington and the other bloggers see this not as rumour-mongering, but as involving the readers in the reporting process. One mission of his site, he said, is to write about the things a few people are talking about, “the scuttlebutt around Silicon Valley”. His blog will often make clear that he’s passing along a thinly sourced story.
He said he did agonize a bit before publishing the post about Twitter and Apple. In fact, he waited 5 hours. But in the end, he decided, “it was interesting and it didn’t hurt anyone to write about it”.
TechCrunch, with about five million monthly visitors, dominates rival blogs, which Arrington disparages. (And they do the same to his.) But he doesn’t think of sites such as Gawker or All Things Digital as competitors. He has his eyes set on The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. (And he disparages both.)
That drive to compete with the so-called mainstream media is what’s behind his strategy. He doesn’t have the luxury of a large staff to confirm everything, so he competes where he has the advantage.
“Getting it right is expensive,” he says. “Getting it first is cheap.”
Brian Lam built Gizmodo into the pre-eminent gadget site with a similar philosophy. “The only way to compete with a news organization with more resources is to fit between the cracks,” he says.
Sometimes the method appears to pay off, though it never really establishes an organization’s claim to credibility. As editor of Gizmodo, which is owned by Gawker, Lam decided to post an item last December, attributed to an unnamed source, that Jobs would not make his usual appearance at the MacWorld show because he was seriously ill. It was thin reporting at odds with the company’s explanation, he acknowledges. “We were scared to death actually,” he said. “We knew it was a risk.”
Lam was lectured privately by Walt Mossberg, The Wall Street Journal’s veteran technology-product reviewer, about ethics, and several bloggers gave him a hard time. A CNBC reporter took to the air to say Gizmodo got it wrong.
A few days later, Lam could claim vindication when Apple announced that Jobs was taking a leave of absence because of his health. To this day, it is unclear how much his health figured in Apple’s decision to withdraw from the MacWorld show. Nevertheless, Nick Denton, Lam’s boss and the founder of the Gawker blog network, crowed, “This is why access is overrated.”
Lam says it taught him a lesson. “If we don’t have rumours, what do we have as journalists?” he asks. “You have press releases. So maybe there is some honour in printing rumours.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES