The Apple iPhone 4G leak: Gizmodo, Engadget and chequebook journalism

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Gizmodo has scored what is probably the tech scoop of the year by obtaining a prototype Apple iPhone 4.

But the real story is how Gizmodo managed to get hold of the new device, then spin out the coverage over several hours with new twists and turns, in order to keep readers coming back to its site and clocking up millions of page views.

The story began in a bar in Redwood City, California, when a punter found an iPhone that was camouflaged to look like an iPhone 3GS. But after removing its specially designed case, it turned out to be Apple’s next-gen iPhone.

Yesterday, in a world exclusive, Gizmodo published photos, videos and information on Apple’s next-gen iPhone. At the time of this writing, Gizmodo’s story alone is bordering on 10.5 million page visits.

Gizmodo traffic

At this stage, media reports remained unconvinced that the phone was actually a product leak and not a photoshop job. That was, until Apple lawyer Bruce Sewell wrote to Gizmodo asking for the phone back. Gizmodo published the letter as validation that the story was the real deal.

Brian Lam, Gizmodo’s editorial director writes: "This phone was lost, and then found. But from Apple's perspective, it could have been considered stolen. I told them, all they have to do to get it back is to claim it—on record. This formal request from Apple's legal department is that claim. It proves—if there was any doubt in your mind—that this thing is real."

It didn’t take long for the Apple hype machine to grind into motion, and for rumours to whirl around the internet about how Gizmodo managed to get hold of the product. Edible Apple reported that Gizmodo paid $10,000 for the iPhone prototype from the individual who found it.

In a tongue-in-cheek blog, Tom Kaneshgie at CIO mused that it was stolen from Larry Ellison’s yacht.

Finally, Gizmodo broke the story themselves, and it turned out to be a little more mundane: an Apple Engineer lost the phone in a pub, in a cockup startlingly similar to recent UK government data leaks. Poor Gray Powell may soon have to ‘think different’ about his career prospects at Apple.

But there is a gap in the story. The phone was in limbo for several weeks. Before Gizmodo published the story, Engadget had already published blurry indistinct photos that suggested it was about to break the story.

But then something happened to make Engadget sit on the scoop of the century, and Gizmodo gazumped them. It’s like the underpants gnomes in Southpark:
Phase one: iPhone lost in bar
Phase two: ???
Phase three: PROFIT

ITProPortal, among others, speculate that there was “a hidden bidding war” between Engadget and Gizmodo, which Engadget lost.

Engadget had the chance to buy the iPhone but, according to reports by its sister site the DailyFinance, it had qualms about buying the scoop. Engadget's editor in chief Joshua Topolsky reportedly said:"‘We aren't in the habit of paying for scoops. We don't think checkbook (sic) journalism is a way to get good information, and it encourages awful behaviour in tipsters."

Hmm, it’s either that or he was outbid, but we wouldn't care to speculate.

However, Nick Denton, the head of Gawker Media (owner of Gizmodo), has no such misgivings. He said via Twitter that Gizmodo paid $5,000 for the device. "Yes, we already disclosed that we paid $5,000. And, yes, we'll do anything for a story. Our only obligation is to our readers."

Denton is clearly, and unashamedly, a chequebook journalist of the old school. As he said on Twitter: "A few clueless geeks believe 'real journalists' wait for Steve Jobs or his publicists to make an announcement. Screw that.”

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