Apple’s Free Ride: Why Journalists Treat Product Launches Like News

"As a marketer, I can tell you, the media is working with and for people like me—not against us."

Last month, America’s reigning (self-appointed, mind you) journalism expert Jeff Jarvis had some harsh words for the 16,000 reporters who traveled to Tampa to cover the Republican National convention.

“What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial—light on the info, heavy on the ’mercial—that the conventions have become?” he asked haughtily. To Mr. Jarvis, sending so many reporters to cover an event—one that nominated a major contender for the President of the United States of America—was a self-indulgent waste. He marveled at the many other, more meaningful things they could have covered instead. His question: “Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?”

No, I suppose we can’t. And if we can’t, perhaps we should also strike a far more egregious expense from our news budgets: covering Apple press events. You know, the twice or often thrice yearly events that bring everyone out to Cupertino, where they stand in line and contribute a few licks to the collective rim job the press loves to give Apple (AAPL). This three-decade-long media mainstay has reached its frenzied apogee in recent years. That may explain why Apple’s Wikipedia page is now tattooed with well over 50 variants of “announced” and “introduced” (compared to Microsoft’s 7, and Dell’s 19).

Which is why I find it so funny that Mr. Jarvis—a technology enthusiast to put it mildly—is critical of the “commercial” coverage of politics. When you look at how many words the tech-savvy media pours out in honor of every new Apple product launch you can almost be forgiven for forgetting what really happens at them: nothing. At the company’s breathlessly covered conference last week, Apple announced that it, a corporation that sells smartphones, would be selling a new version of its smartphone in a few weeks time.


What is an Apple press conference really? It’s a staged pseudo-event where the lazy media and a powerful corporation conspire to pad each other’s coffers. Which is what makes it so hypocritical when bloggers and critics like Mr. Jarvis complain about the kabuki nature of political conventions—because they seem to have no problem with the actual commercials that pass for news content. It’s as if Apple says to reporters: If you promise to cover it with endless credulity, we’ll stage a party you’ll never forget. And the media says: Hey, could we do it a few times a year? It’s great for pageviews.

 And, goddamn if its not incredibly lucrative for all concerned. Apple, for its part, is able to spend a fraction of what its competitors spend on advertising each year because it’s granted so much free press. For instance, Microsoft spent more than $1.9 billion dollars in 2011 on advertising, and Coca Cola spent more than $3 billion. Apple? They made billions more than both, with an ad budget of just $933 million—or less than 1 percent of the company’s revenue.

Apple doesn’t have to pay to tell people about its products, because the media dresses up the company’s product messages and presents them to the public as “news.” As the Huffington Post properly described it, Apple’s marketing strategy these days is essentially “hold off on the advertising, just sit back and let the media go hog wild.”

Meanwhile blogs and newspapers make no secret of the fact that Apple announcements are responsible for some of their biggest traffic days. Ars Technica, owned by Conde Nast, put out a press release last week bragging that its liveblog of the iPhone 5 launch “shattered traffic records.” In fact, Technica developed a proprietary blogging platform just to handle this spike (more than 15 million pageviews, or 500 percent greater than an average day). And when traffic, tweets and searches jump, every other publisher rushes to ride what an editor at the Christian Science Monitor once called the “Google wave.”

The result is fawning, marketing schlock that passes for news, online and off. And nobody, particularly blogs, wants to point it out because it’s all too lucrative. Democrats or Republicans look too rehearsed on stage? Let’s pounce. Apple? Let’s sweep it under the rug. Of course readers click posts about shiny new technology—these days it’s the only game in town.

The recent book Millennials, News, and Social Media: Is News Engagement a Thing of the Past? by University of Texas-Austin journalism professor Paula Poindexter studies how millennials perceive the news today. The words they used most often: “useless,” “boring,” “biased,” “propaganda,” “lies,” “garbage,” “crappy.” I can’t think of a better set of adjectives to describe the type of coverage we see each time Apple calls in a chit and the media rushes out to do the the company’s bidding.

To be fair, this doesn’t begin or end with Apple. We see the same fawning, online news-manufacturing over commercial events each year with CES, SXSW, and a host of other sponsored conferences put on by everyone from TechCrunch to the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsDigital.

Why do reporters love these commercial dog-and-pony shows? Why do they inflate the significance of such events through excessive coverage? Because attending a two-day conference might rack up a few weeks worth of easy stories about sexy new gadgets, plus with every investor, celebrity, brand and executive temporarily in one place, bloggers can grab interviews or prep puff pieces without having to do any legwork. (Plus who doesn’t want a free trip outside the office?) In other words, reporters know full well that everything has been staged for their benefit, but since they have traffic and post quotas to meet, they gladly accept the subsidy

The media and the public are supposed to be on the same side. The media, when it’s functioning properly, should protect the public from marketers and their ceaseless attempts to trick people into buying things.

But that’s not true today. As a marketer, I can tell you, the media is working with and for people like me—not against us. PR flacks and journalists are generally on the same team—when the reader is tricked into giving up their attention we both win. What’s worse is that most readers hardly even know what’s going on because the content they get has been dressed up and fed to them as news.

So before critics follow Mr. Jarvis’ lead and jump on political reporters for spending precious resources actually covering political events that include real nominations and real voting and that have a real impact on our democracy—and for having the gall to do it in person—we should reconsider how much time their colleagues spend covering trivial product announcements the same way. We should consider how much free advertising press outlets give to corporations in exchange for photogenic stunts. And ask ourselves: which is the more insidious and damaging to our culture?

Because look, I like Apple as much as the next guy. I wrote this article on a Mac and I researched it using my iPhone, but as far as I’m concerned, Apple and its multi-billion dollar cohorts should have to pay to market those products. They can afford it.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers.

Apple’s Free Ride: Why Journalists Treat Product Launches Like News