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In praise of Think Secret

Anyone coming to the Mac in the past couple of years won’t have seen Think Secret during its heyday, when editor-in-chief (and owner, and reporter, and bottle-washer) Nick “dePlume” Ciarelli was running the site on a day-to-day basis. Since Nick decamped for Harvard, the site has effectively been on hold, which makes its demise less important than it once would have been.

In its day, though, Think Secret wasn’t just a Mac web site: if you wanted to know the inside story of Apple and its forthcoming products, it was the only web site you needed to read. The key thing about Think Secret – and the bit that made it work – was that Nick didn’t just publish anything that got emailed to him. He was a good reporter, and that meant that everything which went on the site was confirmed by at least two independent sources.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every story was correct: stories can reverberate inside a company before they emerge, at different points, and still be wrong. And, with advanced product information, plans can change pretty quickly: I’ve been given advanced information on product plans from excellent sources within Apple the day before a product is announced, only to find the information changes prior to launch. When reporting on what a company will release in several months time, even if you are assiduous about sourcing, you’ll get more misses than hits.

Ironically, Nick’s finest story appeared not on Think Secret, but on eWeek, when in collaboration with MacWEEK veteran Matthew Rothenberg he revealed the existence of Marklar, the top secret Apple project to port Mac OS X to Intel. Both had been working on the story for months, gathering details and confirming the project’s existence with as many sources as possible.

I was tangentially involved in later iterations of the Marklar story, as Nick asked me to see if I could dig anything up about a little company called Transitive, which he’d heard was working with Apple on a PowerPC to Intel code system. I couldn’t find anything, Nick never got his corroboration – and so Rosetta remained a secret until the announcement of the Intel transition.

For three years after the original story, until Apple announced it was, in fact, switching to Intel, both Nick and Matthew were accused on a daily basis by groups of Mac zealots of making the story up. Even commentators who should have known better gave the story little credence, claiming that the different architectures meant PowerPC code performance would be appalling, and thus Apple would never do it.

Sadly, its not possible to go back to every one of the (largely anonymous) commenters who accused them of being “brain dead” (at best) and make them eat a large slice of humble pie, but I’d imagine that both Nick and Matthew had a wry smile on their faces when the Intel transition happened.

Those who characterise Think Secret as “a rumors [sic] site” are, unknowingly, following a specific Apple PR line which started back in the late 1990’s. The aim of the campaign was to draw a line between what Apple saw as “legitimate” news outlets and “rumours sites”, which published things which Apple didn’t want its customers to hear about. I was told directly on one occasion by an Apple PR executive that I didn’t want to publish a story because it would get MacUser, where I then worked, categorised as a rumours site “and you don’t want that to happen”.

Whether it was meant this way or not, the implication I took at that time was clear: publish stories about forthcoming Apple products, even if accurate, and Apple would stop co-operating with my magazine. We didn’t change our behaviour, and the threat was never acted upon, but there’s no doubt that Apple had decided that there were two kinds of press: those who were “with” Apple, and those who were “against” it. And “against” simply meant publishing information which Apple didn’t want you to know about. Those people who, today, refer to “black PR” campaigns against Apple should know that their beloved company is no stranger to using PR as a weapon.

Look around the Mac media landscape today, and what do you find? Sites which are simple aggregations of press releases. Sites which report anything that an anonymous emailer sends in. How to’s, reviews, commentary (some good, some bad). And, of course, the sites whose sole priority is to put a positive spin for Apple on any news, even to the point of interpreting statistics in ways which are, frankly, insane.

What you don’t have is real, traditional technology reporting on Apple, of the kind which seeks not to sensationalise but to get underneath the skin of the company. To get inside the company, rather than observe it from the outside. Real reporting like this takes time and experience. It means working on stories for months, sometimes years, and that’s not cheap. In a free market, readers get the press that they deserve – or rather, that they’re prepared to pay for. No one is prepared to pay a living wage for one brilliant story a week anymore – but that’s another blog post in itself.

The loss of Think Secret as it is today was probably, for Nick, no big deal. Long-gone from the regular Mac reporting scene, his career as a reporter is only just beginning and we’ll undoubtedly hear from from him in the future. I hope that he chooses tech reporting, but given the way that the technology publishing market has gone, I doubt that he will. Real reporting, as opposed to regurgitating press releases and following the PR line, is largely done elsewhere these days.

(NOTE: For some background on the Think Secret case, take a look at my posts “Why the Think Secret case is being overplayed, by everyone” and “Rothenberg on Think Secret“, both from March 2005.)

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