iJournalism: Why Even Steve Jobs Can’t Keep Secrets Anymore

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Here we are on the eve of Apple's Big Announcement, and the suspense isn't quite killing us. If Steve Jobs actually introduces a tablet computer tomorrow, we may oooh and aaah at the sight of it, but we can't exactly act surprised. (Scratch that if Jobs introduces an iPencil instead of an iSlate or an iPad.) We know, more or less, what's under the Christmas tree — a ten-inch touch-screen device optimized for newspaper, magazine, and book reading (suck it, Kindle!), an app-happy iPhone-esque operating system, and Wi-Fi/3G connectivity — and we can thank the brave new world of participatory journalism for that.

"Create something, put it out there, get reactions, improve," as Bernard Lunn of ReadWriteWeb describes the M.O. of the new journalistic order. In other words, reporting leads, or just plain rumors, get subjected to the wisdom-of-the-crowds treatment by a vast network of blogs, Apple sites, and newspapers. Apple has always had its obsessive observers, of course, but when the company introduced the iPhone a little over three years ago, the global network of potential informers was much less jacked into real-time media creation; commenter culture was just beginning to really explode, and Facebook and Twitter had yet to prompt great rolling waves of link-sharing. (Blame Facebook and Twitter clients on the iPhone itself — with its installed based of 42 million users — for accelerating the tsunami.) In the interim, tech blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget, with audiences in the millions, have evolved into giant listening devices — satellite dishes, of sorts, that constantly monitor the universe for signs of intelligent or informed gossip. The old bloggy shtick — say something to "get reactions" — now has a built-in corrective: a reality check courtesy of readers who are busy doing their own ad hoc reporting.

Apple's own burgeoning vastness also has a lot to do with its apparent inability to keep the lid on its tablet. "If you annualize our quarterly revenue," Steve Jobs pointed out on Monday, "Apple is now a $50-plus billion company." (And its market cap is closing in on $200 billion.) The world is flat, and so information about the globalized economy gets flattened, too. When you're a company that sells as much stuff as Apple does — 8.7 million iPhones, 3.4 million Macs, 21 million iPods in the last quarter — ironclad NDAs only go so far. You can't drape a cone of silence over every truck at every loading dock at every component manufacturer in Asia, especially since tech journalists and financial analysts are keeping their eyes on all the likely players in Apple's tablet supply chain. Reuters, for instance, reports that AVY Precision Technology Inc., a Taiwanese manufacturer of gadget cases, is due to start production of aluminum tablet enclosures for Apple next month, while TPK Solutions and Wintek Corp. are slated to supply touch-screen panels. (Wait, maybe the revolutionary new aluminum iPencil has a touch screen?)

Dubious information quickly gets beat down. Like when TechCrunch blogger MG Siegler ran possibly leaked images of Apple's tablet yesterday, he promptly updated his post to say that "A lot of people across the Web are offering their image analysis of these shots" suggesting they were stitched together. Photoshop, of course, leaves behind digital fingerprints, and it could be that Applet's tablet has been, too. On Sunday, a company called Flurry Analytics claimed that it had sniffed out the presence of 50 prototype devices on Apple's Cupertino campus — it tracked IP and GPS data — which it concluded were "pre-release tablets in testing." How awesome to think of Apple's tablet — or any device in development that can be geo-located or spotted on a network — serving as its own best participatory journalist.

Almost poignantly, newspaper reporters have stepped up their game, too — and not just because the old-school media executives Apple has been partnering with are such helpless gossips and NDA violators. "The New York Times company … is developing a version of its newspaper for the tablet, according to a person briefed on the effort," the Times recently reported about the Times. For bloggers, reporting about Apple is great sport, but for the inky set, it's existential. (See: Carr, David.) It's really no wonder we've been witnessing such dogged journalism about Apple's tablet, a product journalists hope will be the salvation of journalism — and journalists.