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Mac Musings

Journalism and the Mac Web

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- 30 June 2000 - Tip Jar

I'm not a trained journalist, although I play one on the Mac Web. ;-)

I did take every writing and journalism course available in college, but that was before Calvin College had a journalism program. I pretty much let that training languish for 15 years or so.

Then I created a tiny little site supporting really old Macs (compact Macs, LCs, and the Mac II line). Almost three years ago I posted my first opinion, an article (Gil Amelio: Facts and Speculation) where I tried to wade through the facts and rumors to discern what really happened surrounding Amelio's resignation. I'm still proud of that piece, my first foray into the world of Mac Web journalism.

Today we are engaged in a great debate on the ethics of Mac publishing.

Note that I said publishing, not journalism. Writing is at the core of what we do, whether we call it news, advice, commentary, rumor, or humor. Whether we are comfortable with the term or not, those who are published on the Mac Web are journalists. Some are hacks. Some are consummate professionals. All of us bleed text; we are writers.

I'm not comfortable with the label of journalist. It probably applies, but I don't see myself in such lofty terms. I prefer to label myself a writer, a Mac advocate, an editor, a publisher. Journalism scares me - and maybe that's as good an argument as any for me to see myself as a journalist. I take it seriously enough to write carefully and thoughtfully.

But in the end, it doesn't matter whether you label me a journalist, a writer, or a hack. I do what comes naturally: I write about that which I am passionate about.

The Great Debate

At the core of the current debate is a rumor site (AppleInsider), it's owner and publisher (MacNN), a large software publisher (Adobe), and unreleased software (Photoshop 6). There are many aspects to what is happening here; the debate is not all of one piece.

Trade Secrets, Copyright, and Nondisclosure

Companies protect their secrets, such as the recipe for Coca Cola. They have to. If everyone could make exactly the same thing that you sell, you have lost a big advantage in the market.

Companies protect what they publish by copyrighting it. That's why it's illegal to copy software or publish the Adobe Photoshop manual. That's at the heart of the MP3 debate - but enough of that issue.

Companies test their products before releasing them. They may also make details available before release. In such cases, they require those receiving the product or information to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). This is a legal document that says you will not share any details with others.

I have been under nondisclosure and kept my end of the bargain. I must assume that most people who sign the NDA are ethical; otherwise companies would long ago have abandoned them.

But not all people are that honest. Such people may leak prerelease software to the Internet as warez, may post photos to the Web, may distribute copies of the software's documentation.

That's what happened with Photoshop 6 (well, maybe not the warez). Someone leaked the information. AppleInsider obtained it, either directly from that person or from somewhere on the Internet.

At this point, AppleInsider had two choices: publish or don't publish. As a rumor site, their bias is obviously toward publishing.

Keep in mind that nobody at AppleInsider was under NDA for Photoshop 6, to the best of our knowledge. Their posting of this material did not violate nondisclosure, although the person who made it available to AppleInsider definitely violated that legal agreement.

Also keep in mind that in the history of personal computing, there have been times when companies have leaked products to get positive press before release. Thus, is it not at all uncommon for comments on prerelease software to show up on the Web. (Or, in the old day, print. The site now known as MacWeek.com used to be a weekly magazine affectionately known as "MacLeak" in the trade.)

Should a company deliberately leak their product, they obviously hope for positive PR. They want customers to stop buying competing products and wait for their new one to come out.

So one question AppleInsider or any other site has to grapple with when finding out about a new product is whether the company leaked it. And the company won't say; it ruins the whole effect of the "leak."

What would you do?

If I ran a rumor site, could I do anything but publish the information? After all, Photoshop is the leading image editing software and the public will be interested in learning about the next version. Besides, there's a chance that Adobe provided the leak to obtain free PR.

Well, this time around it turned into a big can of worms. Whether the leak was authorized or not, the article on AppleInsider was not particularly favorable. Whether that was a factor or not, Adobe sent their legal beagles against AppleInsider and MacNN, their publisher.

Curiously enough, there are other sites with screen shots and user comments about Photoshop 6. AppleInsider seems to be the only one to feel the wrath of Adobe's legal counsel (at least as far as we know).

The lawyers and judges will have their work cut out for them, raising such questions as:

  • Has Adobe leaked software in the past to obtain favorable press? If so, how could AppleInsider assume this case was any different?
  • Did AppleInsider obtain their information from an individual or did they find it in the Internet?
    • If they received it from an individual, that person would be guilty of violating NDA. AppleInsider could be liable for posting trade secrets if they knowingly obtained it this way.
    • If they found it on the Internet, the courts have already rules that such material immediately loses trade secret status. In that case, the person posting it would be guilty of violating NDA. However, AppleInsider found the information in the public realm and cannot be found guilty of sharing trade secrets.

I'm not a lawyer, but there are a lot of sticky issues here. AppleInsider will have to let Adobe know whether their source was an individual or if the information was already on the Web before they posted their article. That will make all the difference in the world.

For its part, Adobe needs to find the source of the leak and stop it. They obviously need higher standards for those they put under nondisclosure.

Journalistic Ethics

I don't run a rumor site, although we do parody them. We try not to link to rumors, although it's sometimes hard to tell news from rumors. We don't usually do investigative reporting. We don't look for people willing to violate NDA. We are not interested in scooping anyone with the latest hardware and software rumors.

I do run a small business, as does MacNN. Our model, like those of most Mac sites, is to draw people in with our content and make our money from ads. It's the same model TV and radio stations use. The more popular our site, the more money we can make from ads. It sounds mercenary, but that's how businesses operate: we need profits to survive.

But the love of money is the root of much evil. If the only goal of a site is making money, they need not be honest how they go about it. On the other hand, if the goal of a site is providing a public service, money becomes a secondary (but always important) concern.

For most of the Mac Web, the sites that don't publish rumors, the Adobe vs. AppleInsider issue has raised a lot of journalistic questions about a free press, personal responsibility, and journalistic ethics. It's a good discussion as we try to answer questions we don't normally talk about.

I'm all for it. The discussion (or debate) makes us more aware of the impact of what we do. Did AppleInsider harm Adobe? Is Adobe harming AppleInsider? Does the public have a right to know about Photoshop 6? What would we do if we received such a leak?

We're writers and publishers and journalists. We have strong opinions. We might even resort to name calling and pin-the-label-on-the-other-columnists. We take this very, very seriously.

All of us favor a free press. All of us believe in personal and corporate responsibility. All of us do not agree on exactly what that means.

That makes things interesting.

Here's my take on some of the issues:

  • Did AppleInsider do the right thing by posting the material? That depends on their source. If they knowingly received it from someone violating NDA, I believe they were in the wrong. If they found the information on the Web, it becomes a matter of personal ethics.
  • Is Adobe after the right people? That again depends on the source of the material, but they should really be more concerned with tightening their standards for who gets NDA.
  • Did AppleInsider do the right thing by removing the material? That's a sticky First Amendment question. If the federal government couldn't block publication of The Pentagon Papers, it's quite possible AppleInsider could have kept their pages up.
  • Is Adobe more harmed by the leak or their response to it? Frankly, Photoshop is great. I'd probably agree with AppleInsider that version 6.0 is no great shakes. Then again, I'm pretty happy with Photoshop 4.0. Adobe is not winning friends by their handling of this, but maybe they are just following the trail blazed by Apple legal.

I'm glad we don't run a rumors site. I would not want to be in AppleInsider's shoes - and we've come close a couple times (see Web Publishing Ethics).

We really haven't addressed the issue of who the journalist serves. At Low End Mac, we strive to serve the end user. I think most Mac sites and writers see themselves in the same position.

At the same time, we strive to work with integrity and weigh the costs to one party against the benefits to the other, a point Michael Munger makes ably in Deplorable Mac journalism? Excuse me?

We must always think before we write, while we write, and when we edit.

I'm not a trained journalist, but I feel that I'm becoming one.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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