Apple has a track record of playing favourites with publications, so that a handful of journalists get treated like royalty while the plebs consider themselves lucky if they can extract a "no comment". Of course, these very select American publications retain their editorial independence, but there's always a hidden threat: they know that if they don't provide the right sort of coverage, they can be excommunicated. Last week, it was widely -- though incorrectly-- reported that that had happened to The New York Times. (See updates, below.)
Apple has just released a preview (beta) version of a minor upgrade to its Mac OS X operating system, so who got "the treatment" this time? One unexpected recipient was influential blogger John Gruber, from Daring Fireball. He has been called the Ultimate Apple Fanboy, though given the state of Apple-oriented journalism, there are many rivals for this prestigious title.
What's interesting is that Gruber actually describes the treatment he got:
"We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private "product briefing". I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple." … "The meeting was structured and conducted very much like an Apple product announce- ment event. But instead of an auditorium with a stage and theater seating, it was simply with a couch, a chair, an iMac, and an Apple TV hooked up to a Sony HDTV. And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple — Brian Croll from product marketing and Bill Evans from PR."
Phil Schiller is Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing and used to be the primary stand-in for Apple's top salesman, the late, great Steve Jobs. In that capacity, for example, Schiller unveiled the iPhone 3GS.
Someone with Apple Royalty status, such as The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, might well be blasé about this level of attention, but it's pretty unusual stuff for bloggerdom.
One of the problems with this kind of approach is that nobody is really sure who got what kind of advanced briefing, and so a story by Erik Wemple in The Washington Post -- Apple and the New York Times not meshing -- attracted a lot of attention.
Wemple had noticed that The New York Times was quoting Apple's press release and Gruber, which made him think it hadn't got the same briefing. Was this the payback for publishing articles about Apple's problems with the Chinese factory workers who actually make its products? According to Wemple's story:
Says a source at the Times: "They are playing access journalism... I've heard it from people inside Apple: They said, look, you guys are going to get less access based on the iEconomy series."
Many other sites picked up the story. MacRumors, for example, noted that favoured publications ran stories when the embargo was lifted: "But one publication with a long track record of receiving favored access from Apple was missing from that group: The New York Times. An article from the Times' David Pogue was published about five hours after Apple's announcement, and it did not appear to include any specific details suggesting that he had received advance notice of the release."
Fortune reported along similar lines in Apple gives the Gray Lady the cold shoulder.
Both stories were corrected later.
Fortune's Philip Elmer-DeWitt -- who says he has been covering Apple since 1982 -- also published Apple public relations' new media pecking order. He put The Wall Street Journal is at the top ("meetings with CEO Tim Cook and marketing chief Phil Schiller") while, after several other entries, "the rest of us -- including the Chicago Times' Andy Ihnatko -- got a press release". (Ihnatko actually got a telephone briefing.)
It's certainly true that Apple can't do one-on-ones with every newspaper and magazine in the USA, but in reality, it doesn't have to do 1,000 or 100, more like 10. It could even use some new-fangled technology such as video conferencing or webcasting or even a telephone conference call and get six journalists for the price of one.
But Apple continues to play favourites, and ultimately that just looks childish.
Steve Jobs was certainly capable of this sort childishness. For example, when he didn't like an unauthorised biography, iCon - Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, published by Wiley, all of Wiley's books were removed from Apple's stores. This immediately made iCon much more interesting (Read the book Apple wants to ban!) but arguably it did hurt the authors of Wiley's pro-Apple technical books, and users.
You might have hoped that, under new CEO Tim Cook, Apple might act more like a grown up. It appears not.
Correction: My original headline (Apple briefs bloggers, blanks New York Times) and story were based on the belief that, as reported, The New York Times had not been briefed, and this was wrong. On Twitter, Steve Ballantyne kindly provided a link to a Gruber response to US stories, Jumping to Conclusions. Gruber says that "When I left my briefing with Schiller last Wednesday in New York, waiting in the hallway for the next briefing was: David Pogue."