The Mercury News’s Thinly Sourced Apple Scooplet

Some skepticism is in order

I’ve criticized press coverage of Apple quite a bit.

But I have to acknowledge something: The company’s NSA-like secrecy makes it a bear to cover, and readers really want to read about Apple (me, too!). Those factors don’t excuse weak coverage, but they complicate providing good coverage.

Today, as an example, we have this San Jose Mercury News story reporting that Apple is about to launch a digital newspaper-subscription service.

First, the sourcing is thin and unclear. There’s nothing but the old passive-voice attribution in the lede:

Apple is expected to announce soon a new subscription plan for newspapers, which hope tablets like the iPad will eventually provide a new source of profits as media companies struggle with declining print circulation and advertising revenue.

And the second paragraph makes us doubt the accuracy of the first, relying as it does on speculation (at least as far as we know) from an outsider.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. But Roger Fidler, head of digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute in Columbia, Mo., said Apple probably will take a 30 percent cut of all subscriptions sold through the company’s online App Store, and as much as 40 percent of the advertising revenue from publications’ apps.

Finally, in the third graph we get some sourcing for the actual news:

The Cupertino company has agreed to provide an opt-in function for subscribers to allow Apple to share with publishers their information, which includes vital data that news organizations use to attract advertisers, industry sources say.

Anonymous sourcing is fine here. It’s either that or nothing. But it’s the only time any of the news angle is sourced in the whole story, and the only piece of news that looks solid. Look at the weasel words in the first two graphs—all at critical places: “is expected to… soon… probably… as much as…”

Again, it’s extremely tough to cover this company, but this isn’t good enough. Look at some of the headlines of the blog rewrites on Google News:

Rumor: Apple will announce newspaper subscription plan

Rumor: Apple to announce newspaper subscription service

Rumor Alert! Apple Reaches Newspaper Subscription Deal

Those are three of the 165 news results so far. The market is so starved for any nugget of news or “news” about Apple that when a scrap appears, it gets rewritten and repackaged almost immediately by hundreds of online outlets. Pageviews soar.

So let’s be honest here, that—rather than the difficulty of reporting around Steve Jobs & Co.—is what causes news organizations to forego their standards when it comes to Apple (although in this case it doesn’t hurt that everybody assumes that Apple is going to do some deal with newspapers anyway).

Otherwise they’d rather be scooped than have their work labeled “rumor,” accurately, by a bunch of bloggers who know it when they see it.

And if you want my guess (pure speculation—labeled as such!) I’d say newspapers won’t give Steve Jobs 30 percent cut. Far be it from me to overestimate the business prowess and intelligence of newspaper executives, but surely they’re not so dumb as to give him nearly a third of a recurring revenue stream.

Further Reading:

The Press in the Reality Distortion Field: Gossip, rumor, rank speculation—all on the table if it’s an Apple product

Steve Jobs, Holy Moses. Did you hear the one about the most-anticipated tablet since the Ten Commandments? Yes. Over and over and over…

The Dead Go On the Record in The Wall Street Journal: The paper held Apple director’s newsmaking comments until after his death.

Advertising for Apple: We’re not even talking about the crush of breathless stories and live blogs that accompany its pronouncements.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.