The best-sourced reporter covering Apple Inc., one of the world’s most secretive companies, is a 20-year-old junior at the University of Michigan. His name is Mark Gurman. He makes more than six figures a year as senior editor and scoop master at 9to5Mac.com, a news outlet most people have never heard of. In the interest of truth, which Gurman is known to pursue with almost religious zeal, it should be noted that he sometimes types stories in class.
Gurman’s scoops, beginning in high school, have included stories about Apple’s foray into tablets, new phone designs, the arrival of Siri, the dropping of Google maps, how Apple stores operate, how new operating systems work and look, and, most recently, how the company plans to integrate health and fitness tracking into its devices. Gurman’s stories serve multiple audiences. The primary one is Apple obsessives, for whom even a report on a new button design is life changing. Another is the mainstream tech press, which reads his stories for clues about Apple’s larger strategy, a Rubik’s-like puzzle given Apple’s stealthiness and complexity.
“He drives that site the way Nate Silver did at The New York Times,” said Kara Swisher, who with Walt Mossberg co-founded Re/Code. “He’s the show as far as any of us are concerned in Silicon Valley. He’s the brand.”
Becoming a brand before becoming a full-fledged adult has made Gurman’s life a little peculiar to family and friends, and even, at times, to Gurman himself. One morning in the fall of 2011, at the beginning of his senior year in high school, Gurman woke up about 6am and noticed a missed call from a source. “What could they want at 2am?” he thought. Gurman fired off a text message. Through a series of exchanges during the school day, Gurman learned that his source had some incredible goods: details of the iPhone 4S and, more importantly, news of Siri. To fanatical iPhone fans, this was Pentagon Papers stuff.
A few days later, at 5am, Gurman broke the news under this headline: “The new iPhone…” His lead, in bold letters: “It’s time to show our cards.” The next 1,400 or so words breathlessly disclosed everything he knew about the 4S. Like subsequent iPhone scoops, it generated more than 500,000 pageviews and dozens of copycat posts on other Apple fan and rumor sites.
“If you crack open the casing of the new iPhone, you will find significant upgrades from the iPhone 4,” Gurman wrote. “A faster new processor for better gaming and graphics. More memory to improve web browsing. A new camera for “incredibly high-resolution and clear shots.” New chips for connecting to multiple cell phone networks. He had something even bigger, a significant move by Apple to reshape how its users interacted with information on the go. “Assistant,” Gurman called it, using Apple’s internal code name.
Launched as Siri, Gurman nailed its main functions: “To activate, the user holds down the home button for a couple of seconds…and then the microphone interface ‘slides up’ from the bottom in a clever animation.” And he nailed down the way many people now use their iPhones: “Another interesting Assistant feature is the ability to create and send an SMS or iMessage with just your voice. For example, you can say ‘send a text to Mark saying I’ll be running late to lunch!’—and it will send. This is a super compelling feature for people who cannot physically or safely take the time to type out a text message.” Mundane now, but novel at the time.
Gurman reported that the phone would be introduced on October 4. A day after his post, Apple sent invitations to its unveiling, writing “Let’s Talk iPhone,” a sly hint to Siri. The invitation date: October 4. Siri was a hit. Mossberg called it the “standout feature” of the new phone. David Pogue called it “mind-blowing.” Gurman’s scoops continued into the new year and beyond.
Just who it is that’s talking to Gurman is a subject of frequent speculation among reporters, especially because of his age. The details in his stories are so specific that they must come from engineers inside, right? Or favored developers, right? Only he knows, but as Fortune once wrote, “If anyone has the goods, it’s Mark Gurman, 9to5Mac’s teen blogging phenom.”
Gurman grew up the son of real estate agents in Los Angeles. The Gurmans are an Apple family. Gurman remembers getting a blue iPod mini at the age of 10 or 11. He remembers watching Steve Jobs’ introduction of the first iPhone over and over while he should have been studying for his bar mitzvah. His parents spent their anniversary waiting in line with their son so he could be among the first to own an iPhone. “I think that’s probably a good testament to how much we love Apple products,” Gurman said.
He loved Apple so much as a teenager that he taught himself to code his own apps. They were not exactly Instagram-like in their ambition or execution. One mimics an air horn that fans can blow at sporting events. Another lets users knock on their iPhone screens to simulate knocking on a door, “a more efficient and quicker knocking experience,” the app says. Not a bestseller, but learning to code would apparently play an important role in source building after Gurman’s accidental turn toward reporting.
That happened in 2009. Curious about Apple’s plans for its first tablet, Gurman discovered that an entity connected to Apple had registered the domain “iSlate.com” in 2007. Gurman sent the information to a popular Apple rumors site, macrumors.com, which published the details and credited him. “Apple is rumored to be announcing an Apple tablet in early 2010,” MacRumors wrote, “and given this evidence ‘iSlate’ seems a likely candidate for the device’s name.” The name, perhaps an early idea, was off target, but the product itself was not. Gurman’s digging got the attention of Seth Weintraub, the founder of 9to5Mac, and the two connected. “I didn’t know how young he was, but it was pretty apparent that he had a lot of talent,” Weintraub said.
In 2010, entering the 10th grade, Gurman began writing for 9to5Mac, one of several sites Weintraub owns offering aggressive and often tough coverage of Apple, Google and tech gear. Gurman reported all the time, he says: “In between classes, during classes if I had a free moment, nights, weekends, before school, after school, in the car, during other activities. This was my thing. This was something I happened to be really passionate about.”
Weintraub said his young reporter’s early posts required heavy editing and some basic journalism schooling, but his tenaciousness was innate and unteachable. Gurman’s ability to find sources on social networks and make connections with them or their friends was masterly. “In a different dimension,” Weintraub jokingly said, “he’d make a great scam artist.”
Gurman, true to his profession, gives away little about his sources, except to say, “If you want to get the juicy story and find out how it’s going to impact the customer, you need to talk to the people familiar with the development with these products.” Why do they talk? One theory is Gurman’s age, which probably puts him closer in life experience to many of his sources than the old reporting hands of conventional newsrooms. Swisher thinks that theory is nonsense. “You can be any age and be really curious,” Swisher said. “It has nothing to do with his age.”
Another theory is that Gurman, with his native understanding of coding and apps, speaks his sources’ language. That theory, to many, is more plausible. “He knows what he’s talking about and that helps people trust him,” said Michael Simmons, who advises major companies on apps and co-created Flexibits, which makes a popular calendar app. Swisher’s assessment: “He often knows more than his sources do, so that’s a really strong position to be in. He’s not some magical elf. It’s not magic. He works harder at it than other people and then they wonder how he does it.”
It also helps that Gurman is scrupulous about protecting his sources. When he broke a story this year about the design for Apple’s new health tracking app — a design that later changed, Gurman surmises, in part because someone leaked him the details — Gurman did not simply post screenshots because tech companies, especially those as secretive as Apple, have been known to include signals for finding leakers. Instead, Gurman and 9to5Mac recreated the screenshots with Photoshop. And when he broke the story of the iPhone 4s and Siri, Gurman said he waited a few days so more people other than his source had seen or been given the phone to test.
“It’s all about presenting the story truthfully but also so it can’t lead back to people,” Gurman said. “No story is worth getting a person busted.”
Is Gurman a legitimate beat reporter? Apple apparently doesn’t think so. The company doesn’t respond to him and has never invited him to a press event. (Not surprisingly, a spokesman did not reply to a request for comment about Gurman.) He attends Apple’s largest annual conference as a developer. He follows their big product announcements, which have an annoying habit of materializing before major exams, like everyone else: either via a live stream, if Apple provides one, or via the dozens of live bloggers who have more coveted status with Apple and land invites. “I don’t look at this as fair at all,” Gurman said. “But is it holding me back? Clearly not.”
Swisher isn’t entirely sure Gurman is a reporter either — at least in the classical way one used to think of reporters. “He really loves Apple, but he’s not a cheerleader,” she said. “He loves the topic. And therefore he brings that curiousness into his writing. It creates a really compelling read. It’s much more passion than journalism, but it turns out he commits journalism all the time.”
USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism apparently didn’t think much of Gurman’s journalist credentials either. They turned him down. He went to the University of Michigan instead, where even he’s not so sure about journalism. He’s enrolled in the School of Information, where he’ll study coding, server infrastructure and user interfaces. Gurman is saving the cash from his gig — he takes a cut of ad revenue generated by his posts — for startup ideas after he graduates. The more news he breaks, the more he becomes a reporter, the more money he generates for a future that might not include reporting.
Gurman just isn’t sure yet about his future. Could he build his own tech news site after he graduates? Possibly. Could he build an app development firm? Possibly. But it’s only the fall of his junior year, which means he’s primarily worried about two things: iPhone 6 news and his upcoming classes, which include “SI206: Agile Web Development.” He plans to hit the gym most mornings, then head off to class, working his sources along the way.Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.