A Cover for Steve Jobs, a Faux Pas for Time
By FELICITY BARRINGER
nderstatement is not common to conversation in the United States, but Canadians are good at it. Consider the words of Steven Frank, the Toronto bureau chief of Time magazine, on the frenzy after timecanada .com published the magazine's exclusive account of the new iMac computer a week ago Sunday night, 12 hours too soon.
"I know there was some kerfuffle about it," Mr. Frank said drily last week. "But I'm not 100 percent sure what or why."
Here is the what. By flubbing an embargo and giving Web-happy night owls a premature glimpse of the new computer, timecanada.com broke Time's deal with Steven P. Jobs, Apple Computer's chief executive and ringmaster. By pulling down the article a few hours later, the site made it excruciatingly clear that there was indeed a deal.
Here is the why. Take a group of passionate, obsessive, suspicious and Web-inclined individuals (both journalists and Mac lovers qualify). Tell them that there is a secret deal between two organizations about which they are passionate and obsessive. They will then stay up all night speculating about who sold his soul to whom, and will exhaust their vocabularies pillorying the apparent soul- sellers.
By the time Mr. Jobs put his new iMac on display last Monday, the magazine and Josh Quittner, the author of Time's feverishly positive article on the computer, were the villains of the moment. That was even before Mr. Jobs distributed thousands of copies of Time, like so many promotional fliers, to the throngs at the company's semiannual product festival. And it was before Time's Web site posted a hyperlink reading "Buy an iMac," which led to Apple's online store. The link was adjacent to Mr. Quittner's rave review.
Anyone partial to a kerfuffle had only to go to Web sites where technophiles hang out, like ZDnet.com, or where journalists hang out, like Jim Romenesko's medianews.org, to find people in full fuffle.
A headline on Mr. Romenesko's site suggested that Time had sacrificed its journalistic integrity to curry favor with an advertiser. A columnist on ZDnet took time out from his lukewarm product review to charge that the Apple public relations apparatus had deceived him.
And in newsrooms around the country, Mr. Quittner's prose was being quoted with scorn.
"Right here, right now, sitting on a butcher-block table," the article read, "bathed in the sunlight that pours in through spyproof frosted- glass windows, is — repeat after Steve Jobs now — the quintessence of computational coolness, the most fabulous desktop machine that you or anyone anywhere has ever seen.
"O.K., maybe that's overstating it somewhat. Maybe that's overstating it a lot. But it's hard to remain impassive when you're sitting within the reality-distortion field that surrounds Apple's evangelical C.E.O. when he's obsessing about the dazzling, never-seen-anything-like-it, ultra-top-secret computer perched before him. This is the new iMac. . . ."
It is hard to argue that the piece — one of the first nonnews cover articles delivered to Time's four million plus subscribers since Sept. 11 — was a model of objectivity. But the widely held assumption that Time had guaranteed its cover to Mr. Jobs in return for an exclusive story was never more than an unproved assumption — and an infuriating one for Time Inc. executives.
Certainly, Mr. Jobs has long had a talent for placing himself on magazine covers. Time has put him or his companies on its cover four times in two decades, (compared with six times for Bill Gates or Microsoft). Fortune, another Time Inc. magazine, has run at least 10 covers related to Mr. Jobs over the years.
As Stephen G. Smith, a former top editor at U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek, explained last week, "There's something cool and hip about Jobs that appeals to journalists — not just at Time, but across the board." U.S. News, Newsweek and BusinessWeek have all had their share of Jobs or Apple covers.
Apple, with 4.5 percent of the personal computer market in the United States, "is the underdog," Mr. Smith added. "And its users are a virtual cult. Part of the cover calculus is to have a strong constituency buying group. With Apple, you've got that."
As Brent Schlender, an editor at large at Fortune covering Silicon Valley, said: "There's no question that what Apple does generally shows the direction where PC's go, technologically speaking. They are very creative in a technological sense." Mr. Jobs, he said, "is the driving force behind that."
Even if both the man and the magazine stood to benefit from a cover, guaranteeing cover treatment is taboo at Time — though it is not unusual to drop strong hints that display will be prominent, with the signals reinforced when a cadre of art directors and photographers are dispatched to the subject.
James Kelly, the managing editor of Time, said the cover emerged from months of negotiation and the vagaries of the news cycle. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, Mr. Jobs had pitched an article on "Monsters, Inc.," the movie created by Mr. Jobs's digital animation company, Pixar.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, soft news covers on such subjects largely vanished. Then, Mr. Kelly said, "sometime after Thanksgiving when the war looked like it was winding down, we talked" about getting exclusive rights to the first news about the new iMac.
In mid-December, Apple announced that it would unveil the product on Monday, Jan. 7, a day earlier than originally planned.
Monday is when Time magazine arrives on newsstands. But, because Time's Web sites usually post the coming week's articles on Sunday, Time editors agreed to embargo the iMac article until noon, Eastern time, when Mr. Jobs was to present his new baby out in San Francisco.
"All along, I thought we would run it inside, because of news," Mr. Kelly said of the article. "I've been expecting any day now that bin Laden is going to be captured or dead." But as the deadline approached, "there wasn't any other compelling news story."
Mr. Jobs had also conferred with Mr. Kelly's boss, John Huey, the editorial director of Time Inc. magazines. Journalists at two of his magazines, Time and Fortune, had been vying for the iMac exclusive. In an interview last Thursday, Mr. Huey said little about his talk with Mr. Jobs, but he did say that an executive pushing a consumer product would "want to go to the biggest place you could find — to persuade them that they'd be interested in it." Time's circulation is four times that of Fortune.
After his conversation with Mr. Jobs, Mr. Huey said, "I passed the proposition to Jim Kelly, who took the ball and ran with it from there." The advertising department, he added, was never involved. And he said he had not seen time.com's hyperlink labeled "Buy an iMac."
Earlier Thursday, Richard Stengel, the managing editor of time .com, had defended the link as a common practice, saying it was "silly" to think it gave a commercial tinge to Mr. Quittner's article. But on Friday, Mr. Stengel said the link had been removed."At the end of the day," he said, "we thought it wasn't a good idea."