Whether you agree with the practice of checkbook journalism or not, it’s hard to deny that Gizmodo got its $5000 worth and then some with its epic scoop of what looks like Apple’s next smart phone. Do I think the way they obtained the lost device was legal? I’ll leave that for the courts to decide. What I do have a problem with is how the site attempted to deflect criticism of its arguably unethical behavior—including being satisfied with the halfhearted attempts to return the prototype and the unnecessary outing of the Apple engineer who left it in a bar—by portraying “access journalists” as corrupted, easily influenced pawns.
Guess what? I’m an access journalist. And I’m probably not alone in saying that this characterization is not only unfair but wrong.
What’s access journalism? According to Gizmodo Editor at Large Joel Johnson, it’s essentially a form of favoritism. In exchange for granting reporters early access to its products, he argues that tech companies like Apple receive positive coverage. Johnson admits that he is part of this system in that he often gets free gear to test and sneak previews of products before the general public. But he also implies that by publishing the next iPhone story Gizmodo has risen above this influence and has achieved some sort of moral victory.
The point I’m trying to make is that painting all access journalists with a broad stroke is just as unfair as saying that all bloggers are unethical. I’ve been at LAPTOP for nearly eight years now, and I’ve never allowed early access to a product (which is necessary to provide users with timely reviews) to influence our opinion. For proof, look no further than our MacBook Air review from 2009. We were one of the first to get it, and we gave it 2.5 stars. Why? Because it delivered below-average battery life for an ultraportable, and its sleek design didn’t make up for that shortfall. We don’t give something 4 stars or an Editors’ Choice award unless we believe it's deserved, otherwise we won’t have any credibility with our readers.
If I were just another access journalist I also wouldn’t have given the BlackBerry Storm 2.5 stars (another product we got before a lot of other people), nor would I run stories like The Best & Worst Laptop Brands. We’ve established a reputation for being tough, thorough, and fair. And while I’m sure many sites feel pressure to spin their coverage a certain way, I know that LAPTOP has many access journalist peers that always put their readers before the companies with which they work.
It's true that tech companies prioritize media outlets based on a limited supply of evaluation samples prior to a product's launch. And sometimes we've been towards the top of the list and other times nowhere close to that. This practice can certainly be frustrating. But even if we don't make that initial cut I do think it's useful for consumers to get professional insight from those who have evaluated dozens if not hundreds of other products and who have in-depth knowledge of a given category before deciding to invest their own hard-earned money. Readers are usually smart enough to tell the shills from the critics they can trust.
There’s another benefit of access journalism that Johnson ignored in his piece. The companies with which I’ve established close relationships over the years respect my opinion, and I’m often asked to give my honest assessment of not only those products about to be released but also gear that’s on the horizon. (Apple is an exception because of its enforcement of secrecy.) When I give my opinion, I do so not only as an expert but also as an advocate for users everywhere. I know for a fact that this sort of access has improved what ultimately comes to market—or at least its successors.
So am I an access journalist? Yes, and damn proud of it, too.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.