Why Do Big Magazines Hire Hacks for Big Tech Stories?

March 17, 2014 — 16 Comments

Given the many little flubs in this exclusive interview of Jonathan Ive for Time Magazine (originally published in The Sunday Times Magazine), I figured an over-the-top headline for this post was warranted.

Let me set up a couple guideposts. First, getting an exclusive interview with Apple’s Vice President of Design Jonathan Ive, especially one that doesn’t tie to the release of a specific product, is currently a unicorn-sighting event in technology journalism. The man just doesn’t do interviews. Maybe the writer, John Arlidge, was blinded by the opportunity? (Which wouldn’t be the first time a journalist froze in the spotlight of celebrity. I don’t know Arlidge and haven’t looked up other pieces by him, so this could be an anomaly.)

Second, if you’ve covered Apple in any depth at all, I would think there are better ways to describe the company without resorting to overused clichés. Maybe Arlidge is young, maybe his editors wanted to put a spin on the article…whatever the case, this is the type of article that makes me wonder why the magazine didn’t send someone who really knew the subject matter.

I’m not writing this with a “why didn’t I get to do this article” axe to grind. I’ve worked with Apple for years and have some wonderful media contacts there, but Apple publicity is a very specific machine. Apple chooses who it wants to feed information to, and has been known to blacklist writers and outlets for years.

No, I’m annoyed at several specific fumbles, mostly in wording, that expose this interview as ill-informed puff.

It all starts to slide sideways in the second paragraph (emphasis mine):

The gods — or was it the ghost of Steve Jobs? — seemed against it. Jobs didn’t like Apple execs doing interviews. It had not rained properly in California for months but that morning the clouds rolled off the pacific, turning the Golden Gate Bridge black. Interstate 280 South to Silicon Valley was a river of water, instead of the usual lava streaks of stop-start SUVs.

My hackles went up immediately at the first deity reference, which is used by many lesser writers to describe Apple and its “cult-like worship” by customers, who are usually painted as a fanatical minority but are, in fact, hundreds of millions of regular people worldwide. However, Arlidge pulls this one off by using deities only in their common role of providing goal-thwarting weather. But then he has to resurrect the “ghost of Steve Jobs” meme, fortunately ascribing only cosmic power instead of beyond-the-grave business advice to Apple’s late founder. I do like the “lava streaks of stop-start SUVs” as a nice turn of phrase, though.

But just after 10AM, an Apple tech-head appeared in an all-white meeting room on the first floor of building 4 of the firm’s antiseptic headquarters with strict instructions to find an Earl Grey tea bag.

And then it starts to go to shit. An Apple employee, whose job is to clearly prepare the room for an interview and make tea for Ive, is not an “assistant” or even “employee,” but a “tech-head.” Because when you don’t seem to know much about the technology industry, you assume that all of Apple’s tens of thousands of employees are bespectacled geeks.

The next several paragraphs are solid, because Ive gets to talk about his passion for design and making things. And honestly, I love this paragraph because it conveys how much he enjoys what he’s doing:

“Steve and I spent months and months working on a part of a product that, often, nobody would ever see, nor realize was there,” Ive grins. Apple is notorious for making the insides of its machines look as good as the outside. “It didn’t make any difference functionally. We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”

As we get deeper in, we see that Arlidge doesn’t actually know much about Apple’s history.

Back then, Apple’s products were dull. Remember the Newton? Thought not. Design didn’t matter much.

You mean the tablet that was going to revolutionize computing? It may have been a business failure, but it wasn’t a design failure. Arlidge commits the writing sin of assuming that anything today’s readers don’t immediately remember must have been a forgotten failure.

After several more paragraphs I started to regain hope, including a funny anecdote about Ive never unpacking when traveling with Steve Jobs because inevitably Jobs would say, “Hey Jony, this hotel sucks. Let’s go.” But then the hack returns:

Perhaps. But critics complain about the built-in obsolescence of Apple products, its hermetically sealed operating systems, the need to buy new chargers for new products and the prices it charges. Oh, the prices! $20 for a plastic charger that probably costs less than $2 to make! Chargers and iOS are matters for Apple’s software fellas and the firm’s new boss, Tim Cook.

I don’t even need to emphasize sections here. Built-in obsolescence. A “hermetically sealed operating system,” which doesn’t make any sense. The old saw about changing connectors on its devices. (Maybe Arlidge works on a Windows 95 PC handed down from the editors at the Sunday Times Magazine in the UK, where he works, and just can’t figure out why anyone would switch from its PS/2 ports.) And charging $20 for a plastic charger that probably costs $2 to make! As Marco Tabini said on Twitter:

I’m glad Ive tackles the obsolescence question:

What does the company do with [the old versions of devices it provides to Ive to use]? “We reuse stuff and then we’ll disassemble stuff and recycle stuff. I understand what’s behind the question, but I think it’s a fundamental — and good — part of the human condition to try to make things better. That’s the role we’re playing.”

And of course we can’t put on this show without… you know it’s coming… the iWatch.

Will Apple make an iWatch? “Obviously, there are rumors about us working on… and, obviously, I’m not going to talk about that. It’s a game of chess, isn’t it?” Sounds like the Jaeger-LeCoultre sports watch he’s wearing is not long for his wrist…

No, it sounds like he’s not going to answer Arlidge’s question, because Apple doesn’t talk about future products, and also Apple doesn’t talk about future products.

Yes, a journalist should always ask, because you never know when something might slip, when a source might be uncharacteristically open, or the gods from earlier chose to part the clouds and anoint you the bearer of lifestyle technology product news (Jobs be praised). But refusing to answer a question is usually not an answer to the question and an opportunity to speculate.

That’s the trouble with tech. It changes so quickly. Just when you think you have the best gadget, something newer, cooler, comes along — usually something made by Ive. Not that Apple’s hundreds of millions of fans care. The newer it is, the more they like it.

Arlidge only skirts calling Apple customers cultists. Yes, I’d say Apple customers are fans, because I’d like to think we pay for things we like. But no, those hundreds of millions of people grab at every shiny bauble Apple releases. The skirt quickly becomes a slide and in just three sentences we’re face-first in the mud (hopefully we were smart enough to protect the iPhones first).

Oh, but it turns out the mud is actually a pile of shit, because here’s the kicker hinted at the beginning—Arlidge just couldn’t help himself. In the same paragraph:

But should they? When Ive sees customers queueing overnight to buy the latest iPhone, does he worry that we have become too obsessed with the latest “this” or “that”, that we are genuflecting at the altar of technology? A phone is just a phone, not the second coming of Christ.

Score! Deity connection blatantly made! Check that off the list of hacky crap that must go into a mainstream article about Apple. Ive, to his immense credit, picks the reader up out of the muck:

“What people are responding to is much bigger than the object. They are responding to something rare — a group of people who do more than simply make something work, they make the very best products they possibly can. It’s a demonstration against thoughtlessness and carelessness,” he says.

Like this interview.

Let’s start to wrap up with some truly tortured, I-think-I’m-being-clever-to-all-the-ignorant-readers-out-there:

Beneath his studiously modest public demeanor lies a heart of solid steel — ok, aluminum. He’d have to have terabytes of confidence and resolve to win the battles that Jobs deliberately fostered between senior executives in a brutally Darwinian effort to get the best from each of them.

Terabytes of confidence! Psst, Arlidge: prices of terabytes of data are going down every day.

But we’re not done yet. Gotta throw in this bullshit, all of which is code for “I don’t actually follow Apple or the industry”:

Since Jobs died, Apple has hit a rough patch, at least by its ludicrously high standards. It has not had a break-out hit. There has been no Apple TV set to revolutionize home entertainment. No spiffy watch. (Yet.) The firm’s share price has slumped and it has lost its title of the world’s most valuable firm. Some speculate that, without Jobs, Apple has lost its golden touch. An acclaimed new book by the former Wall Street Journal technology writer Yukari Iwatani Kane dubs the company “the haunted empire.” Others say it has killed its own future: that by creating so many extraordinary products in such a short time, it has run out of things to invent.

It’s rich that Arlidge cites the “acclaimed” new book by Kane, whose own recent article was as ridiculous as this.

I really do wish I knew why such high-profile, information-rich interview opportunities like this one are squandered by big magazines. I’m sure it will get lots of page views and maybe newsstand sales, but the editors at Time (and The Sunday Times Magazine, which originally ran the piece) should be embarrassed. I’m not optimistic on that front.

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16 responses to Why Do Big Magazines Hire Hacks for Big Tech Stories?

  1. 

    The whole thing is written like a barely-contained hit piece from BusinessInsider.

    The hotel anecdote is from Isaacson, by the way.

    • 

      Actually, the hotel anecdote is live from Ive himself, when he spoke immediately after Gore at the Jobs memorial on Apple campus.

  2. 

    >Since Jobs died, Apple… has lost its title of the world’s most valuable firm.

    A title it only gained after Jobs’ death and with a price still higher than it ever had while Jobs was C.E.O.

  3. 
    Joerg Windbichler March 18, 2014 at 1:24 am

    Thanks, Jeff, for the dissection. Very well done!
    Ive is one of my all-time favourites and is now on my list of people I would love to have dinner with (now that Steve Jobs is dead). Squandering an opportunity to interview one of the (if not THE) most influential designers of our time is unbelievable and not worthy of the Time.
    Anyway: hotel anecdote is actually from Ive himself (watch his eulogy for Jobs during the Apple special event) (as are some other things Ive said during the interview).
    The stupidity of this journalist is unbelievable. It almost looks as if he did not prepare for this at all (factual errors, like most valuable company etc.). I wonder what Ive thought during the interview and what he now thinks of the written piece… Not much I’m sure…

  4. 

    “terabytes of confidence” is the new “I feel like a hundred dollars”

  5. 

    “I really do wish I knew why such high-profile, information-rich interview opportunities like this one are squandered by big magazines.”

    It seems that the Apple of 2014 is rather aware of a buzz-o-meter, and looks for opportunities to tilt the public perception. By and large, mass-circulation magazines’ readerships aren’t going to be interested in details such as Apple’s reported New Product Process, and both the reporter and Mr. Ive are happy to allow platitudes in the place of specifics that might inform competitors or give anti-Apple parties a toehold.

    Most readers aren’t interested in business details; they’re going to look for accessible, “humanistic” explanations that help them project their own value system onto the company. I don’t think that the Ive interview was a 10-out-of-10 article from Apple’s perspective, but reading through it, if only techies are disappointed, it must’ve been at least an 8.

  6. 

    Ha ha! Arlidge alludes to the Newton as an example of a poorly designed product. Which Newton? Because the second iteration of the product, the Newton 110, was designed by, wait for it, Jony Ive.

    Which goes to show just how justified Mr. Carlson is with (in?) his indignation. Apple is the most watched company in the history of human civilization. If a publication assigns a writer who has but cursory knowledge of Apple to write a piece about Apple, someone, somewhere will rise up to expose his unsuitability for the task.

    • 

      I don’t think your point challenges the idea that Apple wanted some warm’n’fuzzy PR, and that they found a publication happy to give it. If anything, reinforces it.

      I also think that you misattribute the “design” of the Newton. The real design issues were egg freckles, (non-) synchronization and perhaps others I’ve forgotten. Ive could not have been responsible then for much more than a box shaped the way Apple thought its users would think right.

      If you’re going to support the thesis that all writing about Apple should be well-informed and on-point, you should emphasize points that actually prove your claim.

  7. 
    Dorkus Maximus March 19, 2014 at 7:13 am

    I’ve become blind to most of the Apple cliches noted above. What got me was the question that wasn’t asked. Jobs and Ive worked closely together. Jobs had a large influence on product design. And yet the author didn’t bother to ask Ive how product design is different now that Jobs is gone.

  8. 

    Arlidge is simply following the advice most editors give to people writing for a mass audience: keep it at an eighth-grade level. In that, he has succeeded brilliantly – except for the fact that most eight-graders these days know how to use the web to do basic fact-checking.

  9. 

    My biggest eyeroll came when he writes “That’s the trouble with tech. It changes so quickly.”

    And, uh…no. The fact that technology keeps improving isn’t a problem. It’s a *good* thing, and what we expect. It’s funny that half of Apple’s critics complain that they make upgrades too soon, while the other half complain that Apple’s products are outdated; and you can often find both criticisms coming from the same people. Same with how Apple critics will insist that Apple is doomed without Jobs and how Jobs was nothing but an overhyped conman who didn’t innovate anything. Like…both these things can’t be true.

    But regardless, I like the fact that Apple keeps trying to make their products better, including the superior power cords they went with on the iPhone 5. Calling annual upgrades a problem is like complaining that Florida gets too much sun. It’s not only not a problem, but something people expect.

  10. 

    I am shocked that so few realized that the “cute” or “funny” anecdote about Jony not unpacking was actually part of his eulogy at Steve’s funeral in Oct 2011.

    Link below.

    http://macography.net/2011/10/jonathan-ive-tribute-to-steve-jobs/

  11. 

    Jeff Carlson makes a number of excellent points about this article, but I think his analysis needs to be taken one step further. Many readers of this blog can spot the errors in the Time interview, such as dismissing the Newton as boring. Mr. Carlson laments the fact that this interview opportunity was wasted, due to the errors and hackneyed analysis, but himself misses the bigger picture: All the articles in Time are equally flawed. It is only most obvious when a subject matter in which you are an expert is being written about. Read the other Time articles, about the economy, Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Obamacare or whatever, with as critical an eye as you do when Apple is the topic.

  12. 

    ‘John Arlidge writes for the Sunday Times Magazine . . . A version of this story ran in the Sunday Times of London in the UK’ – says it all, really.

    I’ve not been willing to pay to see that version, but I have looked at the one published in ‘The Weekend Australian Magazine’ of 22-23 March 2014, which reads as a perfectly amiable, well-written profile of a notable person. The odd ‘hermetically sealed operating systems’ does appear, but there is no peculiar second para of scene-setting ‘Apple tech-head’ nonsense, no facile ‘– usually something made by Ive’, not a whiff of any ‘terabytes of confidence’ drivel.

    Comparing that printed version with the on-line TIME magazine effort suggests to me that clumsy ‘repurposing’ of the piece for the web, and for the US demographic TIME hopes to reach, has damaged it significantly.

    That said, if Ive doesn’t talk to technology journals then this was never going to be that ‘unicorn-sighting event in technology journalism’ one might wish for. The credited author (as distinct from the uncredited hacks at time.com) is employed to write for the man on the Clapham omnibus, which, presumably, is why Ive agreed to the interview in the first place.

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