The press sours a bit on Apple

The company's control of its narrative is loosened by leaks

One of my favorite sports as a critic is watching how the press liveblogs the periodic gadget announcements that Apple pioneered as a 21st century model for getting and controlling press coverage. These events involve getting dozens or hundreds of journalists into a room, rolling out what’s left of the Reality Distortion Field, and having them type up live mash-notes for a rabid audience.

No questions till later, and type, don’t think.

But Steve Jobs is dead and Apple is the biggest company in the world by market cap—a $640 billion Goliath bigger than one-time Big Brothers Microsoft and IBM put together (plus $137 billion in change), and 35 times the size of Dell, whose founder, when asked fifteen years ago what he’d do if he ran Apple, said, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

Any magician needs the element of surprise to make his act work, and Steve Jobs famously kept an NSA-like grip on information coming out of his company. That, paradoxically, boosted press coverage of Apple by making news about it scarce. And these were quite the shows, particularly when they unveiled groundbreaking products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad—amazing products that no one knew much about before the show.

This time, though, there were no surprises. Apple’s astonishing success means the company is so huge now—it’s on pace to sell $130 billion worth of products this year—and interest in its products is so high, that it found it impossible to secure its supply chain. Nearly all of the new features of the iPhone leaked out well ahead of time, and you could feel the disappointment in the live coverage.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a lot of fanboy and fangirl coverage of the event. As is typical with the liveblog coverage, there were lots of pictures of the outside of the venue where the press conference (and make no mistake, that’s what these events are) was held and up-to-the-minute updates on when journalists were in their seats and how comfy they were. ABC posted a picture of the entryway to the venue, and typed, “The door to the future!” When it was inside, it told us that Apple had a “very clean stage,” perhaps hoping Tim Cook would roll out an iMaid.

Engadget’s liveblog reached parody stage when it wrote “iPhone 5! That’s the name,” followed closely by “It’s rising from the floor of the stage! There it is!” and then “Another row of apps! Woo!” Those were just four of 78 exclamation points I counted in 122 minutes of Engadget’s liveblog, or one every minute and a half!!!

The New York Times’s coverage was sober by contrast, although putting four reporters on that story was surely overkill. The NYT’s immediate take was that there was no real news at the event, since nearly everything had leaked earlier.

The Wall Street Journal also did a good job of not playing the fanboy/girl. Even Wired was mostly restrained.

There’s still way too much parroting of corporate propaganda going on with liveblog coverage, but at least yesterday was mostly an improvement over the slobbering coverage of Microsoft’s Surface tablet three months ago.

This was the NYT’s lede on its print story today:

The new iPhone that Apple unveiled on Wednesday does not have the biggest screen of any smartphone on the market, nor is it the first to offer Internet access over the latest, speediest wireless networks.

The Journal’s headline says, “Is Apple’s iPhone 5 Boring?” And Reuters goes with “Apple’s iPhone 5 bigger, faster but lacks “wow”“

You sense the tide turning a bit.

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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. Tags: , , , ,