Gini Dietrich

iPhone 4G Prototype Means Checkbook Journalism for Gizmodo

By: Gini Dietrich | April 20, 2010 | 

I know today is supposed to be video blog day, but we are postponing for a day so we can discuss what’s going on with the iPhone 4G prototype, Gizmodo, and checkbook journalism.

Never mind the latest reports that say Gizmodo may have been punk’d by Apple or the way they “outed” the 27-year-old engineer who “lost” the iPhone 4G prototype, I want to talk about checkbook journalism.

Typically checkbook journalism is reserved for the first photos of Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s twins or Lindsay Lohan falling down drunk in a bar the night she’s released from rehab. But the tabloid/sensational journalism seems to be appearing in technology and business reporting as of late.

By their own admission, Gizmodo says they paid for the iPhone 4G prototype, after it was found in a bar in California.

Did Gizmodo shell out $5,000 for its exclusive lost iPhone 4G story?

Yes, says head of Gawker Media (the publisher of Gizmodo) Nick Denton, who tweeted earlier Monday, “Yes, we’re proud practitioners of checkbook journalism. Anything for the story!” and “Does Gizmodo pay for exclusives? Too right!”

Not only is traditional PR dying, we will soon be hawkers of our client’s products and services to the highest bidder? I’m so disgusted, I don’t even know what else to say.

What do you think? Has the era come that exclusivity now come with a price tag? Or is this highly unethical and one can hope we won’t fall victim to consuming the media who practice this?

I hate to say it’s likely the former because Gizmodo had something like 10 million page views when they released the iPhone 4G prototype photos. I guess it truly is about the eyeballs.

P.S. Thanks to Time Management Ninja for the suggestion I write about this!

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • as a person looking forward to the 4G iphone, i am excited to see what could be coming but immediately it seemed to be one of those few things.. but it is wild to see that we are getting to the technology realm like we are in the world of celebrities and paparazzi.. either way.. bring on the phone!

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  • Dave
  • This is an excellent post, Gini, and you really nail an important shift in online media. Basically, it doesn’t matter who breaks the story now, as long as the story gets out.

    Increasingly we’re seeing “blogs” like this use the kind of strategies print tabloids used to generate buzz. I doubt the hits they generated could be converted into revenue. It’s more a statement of intent: like saying, we’re as big as as you – the tabloids– now.

    So much for citizen journalism.

    • Gini Dietrich

      Jon, I’m with you. So what it got you 10 million viewers? Can you translate that to 10 million every day? If so, I suppose there is a model here (much to my chagrin). But I’m guessing it doesn’t stay at that level.

  • My friend Rob asked me this on Twitter: “They bought 1 million visitors for $5k. Were 5k of those uniques? Does it grow their base? Do you blame them?”

    Actually, I do blame them. Just like Jon said in his comment, more viewers for a day doesn’t equate to ROI. So you bought a bunch new viewers. Does that mean they’re going to come back? Do you really want to be known as the tabloid of technology? Maybe I’m naive and idealistic, but I’d like to think we can drive new viewers with great content…without having to buy them.

  • The problem I have with this, is that they knowingly screwed up a companies product launch. The work and hours that goes into these launches, just to have an employee leave his phone. There are leaks all the time, but to have a companies entire project on display. I find it tacky that they blogged it.

  • Nick, I’m trying to decide if it’s the real thing or not. I can’t imagine Apple lets a junior level engineer out of their offices with a prototype. It might very well come out that this was a hoax. If it’s not, then it just adds to my disgust that bloggers are paying for stories that will hurt a company’s reputation.

  • I think what you’re more shocked at Gini, is not checkbook journalism itself (you had to know it has always existed), but that Gizmodo is so darn PROUD about having done it! This I think is a profound shift, as it has always been associated with the sleazy sector.

  • Charlene – I think you’re right. Maybe I should stop stressing about it and just meet you for gooey cookies.

  • I’ll be the contrarian and say that I think Gizmodo made a very smart move here, and one that was perfectly in line with their business model. Gizmodo, Mashable, Techcrunch and several other tech sites are built around link bait. They draw in users with articles that are deep enough to generate interest, but they have no depth.

    Consider a few recent articles:

    Why I like Guys with iPhones (gizmodo)
    Pandora Partners with Facebook (200 words on mashable, and articles ends with a question)
    Be Evil. Facebook’s New Like Button. (techcrunch)

    Hard hitting journalism this is not.

    I’d argue that your problem isn’t with their business decision, it’s with their business model. The business models for these sites isn’t about quality or depth. This is about a quantity of articles intended to drive site volume to maximize ad revenue. SEO strategies clearly determine content creation, and iPhone is link porn.

    I have no problem with these sites business models. It’s what they decided to be. I don’t personally go to these sites for these very reasons, but they’re entitled to try to make a living however.

    If your primary objective was to generate traffic, how would you have approached this situation? $5,000 bought 1,000,000 visitors. That’s 1/2 cent per visitor. Where else can you buy visitors that cheap?

    I heard they had 10,000,000 page views. They’d need to sell ads at only a $.50 CPM to pay back the cost of buying the phone. I’m betting they made slightly more than that.

    You mentioned not building base, but again I disagree. We’re talking about such a large group of visitors, only a small percentage needs to return to be economically smart. Considering the ad revenue they likely made, *any* repeat visitors would be free.

    You may not like their content, but from a tactic perspective this was brilliant.

  • It’s so interesting to see this from a PR professionals perspective, Gini.
    I read a really poorly executed rebuttal to Gizmodo’s iPhone 4 story yesterday by the tech reporter for he Trib/RedEye, but it essentially came out sounding like professional jealousy at being scooped.
    I’m still not sure how I feel about this. I liked it better when it was an elaborate yet deliberate leak on Apple’s part, and Gizmodo was just the bad actor playing along.

  • @Nick:
    “The problem I have with this, is that they knowingly screwed up a companies product launch.”

    Uh, this is the same company (Apple) that knowlingly screwed up Adobe’s Flash CS5 release. Why do they deserve more consideration than they gave another company?

  • Rob, you are right. It is actually less then that. Just to advertise with the NY Times, the base CPM is $8 dollars (with is just run of site). For those of you who do not know what CPM is, it is Cost Per Mille (latin for thousand) impressions. So, you would pay 8 dollars for your ad to run a thousand times, however this does not equate to visitors. In fact, CPM campaigns can run as low as .04%, which means 4 visitors. Which is why Google and Facebook are making more money, but that is another article. So, yes Rob I actually agree financially it was a great move.

    Amy, Apple does not deserve more consideration at all. Apple has always done what they wanted to regardless of other businesses. People love to bash Microsoft, but Apple has done its own fair share.

  • Rob and I continue this debate on Twitter.

    My issue is this: Early in my career PR and advertising were totally separate. If you worked with a reporter on a story, there was NEVER any implication that they’d write a story only if you advertised. Then trade magazines started to imply that if you advertised, they’d write a story. So, when I started my own business, I made it policy to tell reporters that we believed in church and state and wouldn’t make recommendations to our clients on advertising. That worked…and still works.

    Paying for a story is tabloid journalism. It’s not ethical. I don’t care what it does to your revenue. It’s not right. Link bait is not ethical. I don’t care if it helps you make a quick buck.

    In today’s age of transparency and authenticity, this kind of shoddy business will go down in flames.