Mediactive

Complicating Relationships in Media: Apple, NY Times Dealings Raise Questions

UPDATED

Recent days have reminded me of the many traits Apple and the New York Times share. Both are the best at what they do in certain domains. Each is emphatically elitist, and, in varying ways, self-confident to the point of arrogance. Neither is very transparent (though at least the Times has its Public Editor).

The differences, of course, are profound. In particular, there’s the business trajectory: Apple has reinvented itself several times, and lately has gone from triumph to triumph as a profit-making company. The Times Co.’s record in this regard is deeply mixed: Reinvention has come mostly at the edges, and the business has been heading downhill.

The affinities between Apple and the Times came into sharper focus in the past several weeks, but in ways that have raised some difficult and as-yet unanswered questions. Some background:

On many occasions during the run-up to the launch of the Apple iPad, a product that brought widespread huzzahs from a who’s-who of technology journalists, I visited Apple’s home page. Most of the time, here’s what that page looked like:

Apple has been eager to show people that major media institutions are flocking to the device, as the Times has done with one of the early iPad applications (more on this below). It trotted out Times new-media executive Martin Nisenholtz at the formal introduction of the iPad in January (the paper’s next-day story didn’t mention that, though its reporter-bloggers did); Nisenholtz praised the device, which I have no doubt he truly adores.

As a (very small) shareholder in the New York Times Co., I was glad to see the newspaper get such a prominent spot at the event, just as I’ve been pleased to see the paper experiment with digital journalism and new business models — and glad to see Apple push the Times as its poster child for the iPad.

But as someone who wants the Times to always meet, to the extent possible, the highest principles of journalistic practice, I’ve been getting an increasingly uneasy feeling, on several accounts.

By appearing on stage at the Apple event and by launching an iPad app that the Times wants to monetize in every possible way — an app from which Apple will likely make money as well — the Times is becoming more of a business partner with a company it covers incessantly. And when Apple promoted the Times so visibly before the in-store selling date of the iPad, given the millions of people who visit Apple’s home page each month, it was giving the Times a huge boost.

Apple’s website is, by any standard, a media property; all institutional websites — just as all blogs, for that matter — are media properties in this world where boundaries are becoming less easy to discern. So I found myself wondering: Did the Times pay for this fabulous product placement? Or did Steve Jobs (I’m assuming he at least approved this) decide to associate Apple with an undeniably great news brand in this extremely out-front manner — well beyond the routine way that Jobs and other Apple executives have shown the Times on conference screens over the years as they demonstrated new products?

I’ve asked the newspaper’s spokesman this question. So far he has not responded. (UPDATE: I’ve received, after 11 days since first asking, the official word that the paper is “not going to comment.”)

I’ve also asked the Times to address a much more difficult issue: about the appearance of a conflict of interest that could fairly raise questions in some people’s minds about the paper’s journalism in covering the iPad — journalism that has been almost uniformly adulatory.

Make no mistake about what I believe: I’m certain that the overwhelmingly positive coverage the Times has given the iPad reflects the journalists’ best efforts to do their jobs. I know most of these people and I trust them; they’re pros who understand how easily Apple seems to turn otherwise skeptical journalists into fanboys and girls, and I’m sure they do their best to block out Steve Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” as they work. From experience, I can tell you that staying skeptical is difficult given Jobs’ absolute mastery of marketing and the reality that Apple sells some pretty nifty gear and software; I cringe at some of the credulous things I wrote about Apple during my days as a columnist.

What value has Apple received from the Times‘ massive and continuing coverage? Quite a bit, of course — though it’s only fair to note that most other major journalism organizations have given the iPad the kind of fawning attention that makes every other company executive on the planet insanely jealous.

Apple’s business and PR methods aren’t the issue here. No company plays the media better than Apple, period, and this is obviously good business for Jobs and his employees and shareholders.

What matters is the Times‘ seeming indifference to the way this looks. Even though I don’t believe there was any quid pro quo, I do believe that someone who doesn’t know the players could reasonably ask if an arrangement did exist.

***

That’s only one issue I raised with the Times‘ spokesman. Here’s another, which I’ve also raised with Nisenholtz and people at the Wall Street Journal and USA Today: Does Apple, which maintains control over what iPad apps are made available, have the unilateral right to remove these journalism organizations’ news apps if the apps deliver information to audiences that Apple considers unacceptable for any reason?

No one has answered the question. I take the silence on this to mean that the answer is Yes, given the evidence of earlier Apple behavior plus the publication of an iPad application-developer agreement obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a document that revealed control-freakery by Apple on a stunning level.

Now, the news organizations’ silence could also mean only that they’re abiding by a key element of that control: a requirement in the app-developer agreement (the one we’ve seen, anyway) to say nothing publicly about the specifics of these dealings with Apple. Perhaps — and I hope this is true — they have special dispensation from Apple to provide the journalism they deem fit for their audiences with no interference allowed. If so, they should say so.

But why, in either case, are they in bed with Apple in the first place? We already know that Rupert Murdoch has praised the iPad as a way to get back control of the audience — in the sense of forcing people to pay for what they read — that the News Corp. CEO wrongly believes is being stolen by Google and other companies that merely link to the material the news organizations make available online. As noted above, it’s also no secret that executives at the Times and other media companies, while not howling at the moon the way Murdoch does, see the iPad as a crucial part of monetizing what they do.

As noted in an earlier post here, I have deep reservations about news organizations’ willingness to cast their lot with a company that exerts such control over users of its technology — a company that has already ordered German publications to tone down material Apple deemed inappropriate and has removed thousands of apps from the iPhone app store, and a company that has attacked journalism and journalists (to whom I’ve given support in two court cases) more than once in deeply troubling ways.

Jumping into an ecosystem like this violates fundamental journalistic principles, I believe. And the more popular the iPad gets the more potentially dangerous this could become to the information ecosystem.

Again, Apple has every right to push around its customers and media “partners” in pursuit of its business goals. What bothers me is the media companies’ willingness to cede so much of their authority to a company that has demonstrated its willingness to abuse it.

***

All of this activity stems from the confluence of several trends.

One is especially disappointing: Apple’s decision to move away from, if not abandon, its roots as a company devoted overwhelmingly to computer users as opposed to the media consumers it wants to bring into the iPad ecosystem. I’m a longtime Apple customer, and would guess I’ve spent at least $30,000 of my own money over the years on its products, most recently a Mac computer that, despite some flaws, still feels like the best combination of hardware, software and user community in the market.

The iPhone, locked down from the beginning, started Apple down a road I cannot support. The iPad is a lovely device in so many ways. And with not very many tweaks for more openness, could easily be the kind of computer I’d carry on the road. But Apple’s decision to move its developer and user control up the value chain — forcing developers to sell through only one store, Apple’s, and telling users of that channel they may only use or see what Apple approves — persuades me that the company’s long-range goal is to make this restrictive ecosystem the standard, not the exception.

The iPad, as many others have noted, is designed to work best with apps: Apple’s own and the third-party apps that are coming into the Apple-controlled market from which Apple profits with every sale of a paid app and will profit further from commercial activities that take place inside those apps. It’s much more in Apple’s interest to push the iPad as an app platform than as a Web platform, however well the device runs Flash-forbidden Safari (competing browser providers are not welcome in any case).

Apple wants to be not just the platform but also, effectively, the pipe — a permission-required conduit — for the information that gets to the device. This makes the iPad a fundamentally anti-Web platform no matter what Apple and its supporters claim. It makes the iPad an anti-Internet platform, as GigaOm’s Paul Sweeting told NPR the other day.

Apple’s lockdown methods suit a large number of media consumers just fine. They want a walled garden. They want Apple to protect them. They want an ecosystem where someone else makes all the key decisions so they don’t have to worry.

The more thoughtful among this group figure they can go elsewhere if Apple abuses its power (not caring, apparently, that Apple already has amply demonstrated abusive ways). They are falling into the trap Jonathan Zittrain warned about so presciently in his book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop it — a future where our ability to be creative will exist more and more at the whim of companies and governments that prefer centralized control and want us to ask permission. Truly dynamic societies don’t work that way.

Traditional journalism executives (and not a few of their editors, writers et al in newsrooms) have found the walled garden’s fragrances too alluring to resist. They are making an understandable short-term decision, but in seeking what Cory Doctorow so aptly calls a “daddy figure” they’re casting their lot with a company that hasn’t begun to earn such fealty. (I use that last word deliberately; it comes from feudal times and refers to the enforced loyalty tenants and vassals were forced to swear to their lords.)

Journalism principles will survive the iPad. Journalism will survive panicked efforts to restore a former “glory” that was based more on rapacious, unsustainable business models than on actual value to society. It will survive because the entrepreneurial spirit — if permitted by those in authority to flourish — always finds ways around control.

So in the long run, it’ll all work out. But in the short run, I’d be happier if journalists recognized and discussed more publicly the conflicts they face in supporting this controlling device — and doing business with the company that controls it.