"Daddy, what's an NDA?" A reader's guide to understanding gadget sites

See: Spy shots, NDAs, Review Samples

Given the excitement about the iPhone 2, the suppositions that carriers are getting huge shipments, and idea that hundreds of media are currently running around with the IP2 as we speak, surreptitiously shooting pictures of our underwear with the phone’s 12-megapixel X-Ray camera, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how Apple — and the rest of the industry — releases products into the wild and where many of these spy shots and leaks come from. I’ll also address some misconceptions about what and how we do our “jobs.”

Spy shots – Most spy shots come from disgruntled employees into office parks across the land. Bigger factories will not allow any cameras on the premises, so the earliest you can feasibly get spy shots is when a company begins sending product out to software partners for testing and coding. For example, the Instinct we saw pictures of last week probably came from someone within Sprint itself who received a phone to play with and doesn’t care about their job. Note the last part of that sentence: you need someone who hates their job and/or is dating a blogger.

If you see something that looks like a picture from a factory or a lab, do not be fooled. It is probably fake.

Some of these disgruntled employees also sell or rent out their ill-gotten gains to certain websites. If you see early shots of any device on a site or on, God forbid, eBay, you’re looking at what amounts to stolen merchandise.

In regards to FCC spy shots, these are a bit simpler to find. The FCC tests almost all electronic devices for radio interference. They have to take photos of the device in order to place it in the FCC report. These photos surface on the Interwebs. Why didn’t the iPhone appear in an FCC report? Because Steve launched it eight months in advance, thereby reducing the value of finding the iPhone’s FCC report buried in the database. The question is, however, why the iPhone 2 hasn’t surfaced.

NDAs – Many journalists, the hacks at CrunchGear included, are invited to one-on-one or party-like media events throughout the year. There we are offered food and/or booze and shown devices that we can’t talk about until a certain “embargo” period is up. This embargo period is a vestigial construct designed to allow folks in Boise to get up to speed on what the folks in New York already know and to allow aged reporters a little “head time” with the concepts before they write. We at CrunchGear, on the other hand, can spout off a poorly-researched post in minutes, reducing the value of the embargo considerably.

In order to view these items, we have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements which state that we won’t talk about the device until some certain date and time. Some sites refuse NDAs or are too dumb to figure out when 12PM EST is and post early, thereby rendering the NDA moot and causing great gnashing of teeth when someone in Australia gets a scoop on something that essentially everyone knew about already but wasn’t allowed to write about.

That said, some journalists are special-er than others. If there is an IP2, David Pogue has it. He just does. It’s a law of nature, the same way that weird itching on your lip means a cold sore is coming. The rest of the world will either get it the day of launch in a FedEx package or cry and bitch to PR people that they didn’t get one. Occasionally a device is promised and never comes, resulting in hilarity.

Review samples – Journalists get review samples. We send them back. If I have a bunch of boxes in my house containing devices in various states of undress it is because the PR people haven’t sent me an address and shipping label. Trust me: after your 10th fully-featured Linux-based media hub, you’ve had enough. And no, this job isn’t like being a secret shopper where you get to keep what you get. We, the CG team, pay for our electronics like anyone else. Except for the robotic pleasure bot I got from Sony for writing them a good review. I’m keeping that.

Objectivity – As a blogger, I’m subjective. As a journalist (I also write for newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times), I’m objective. This means I try not to have a bias towards or against a product in more mainstream places and that I do have a massive bias here on the site. This is because I consider this site a conversation with you guys and if I said everything was just peachy (*ahem* *cough* CNET *cough*) you’d think I’d gone senile and stop reading. We at CG like long walks on the beach, Macs, and XBox. I personally hate the Wii, Sony (for failing to live up to its promise to produce and sell cool product and instead making tiny TVs for $6000 and some rolling turd), and mean people. We try to report it like it is but, if in our experience we know something is false when companies say it’s true and vice versa, we will tell you.

If a gadget site tells you they are objective, they are lying.

Now, to discuss a few unsavory parts of our industry.

Sponsorships – One charge always leveled by naysayers is that “X is sponsoring you, so you’re nice to them.” This is not true and shouldn’t be true anywhere. Advertising is usually walled off from editorial, as it should be, so even if Microsoft turns CrunchGear into BillGear I’ll still say that Vista eats it.

Bribes – We don’t accept money or product for coverage nor do we handle advertising in any direct sense. That’s our policy and that is pretty much standard across the board. We do accept gold ingots, as the value is expressed in the scarcity of the metal and not based on the vagaries of the financial markets.

Junkets – Journalists and increasingly bloggers are offered junkets. Junkets are flights, room, and board offered by companies to show off a certain item, factory, or brothel. We at CG will accept these without much hesitation simply because it adds immediacy to our coverage and I trust my boys — I do not go on them — won’t be wooed by offers of caviar and backrubs on the French Riviera. If I thought we could afford trips to Tokyo every year, I’d budget them in. As it stands, it’s better and more valuable to let someone pay for said trips and get a good story than sit them out and get information second-hand. Note: if suddenly all of the major sites start reporting live from Tokyo on the release of a new love pillow, it was probably a junket. Note: Junkets are about as glamorous as a trip to Italy with your aged parents. You spend hours on buses, eat bad hotel breakfasts, and get to know your fellow journalists far too well.

Press rooms – When you, the non-journalist, go to a conference, you have to pay for food at a stand or restaurant and you enjoy yourself. When we go to a conference, we get a bagel, some stale coffee, and sit at uncomfortable tables for hours posting from the “show floor.” The place we do these things is called the “press room” and, interestingly enough, we also have “bloggers lounges” now, which is an actual first. Sure it sounds like we’re pampered and spoiled but it’s actually a pain because all of the journalists are corralled in the same room and journalists in the same room with limited Ethernet ports (Wi-Fi never works at conferences), hopped up on carbohydrates and coffee, is a powder keg. You, on the other hand, can walk around and then leave without giving the conference a second thought.

So there you have it: all the things that effect whether you will or will not see a leaked iPhone 2 photo on our website or a photo of anything, for that matter. Newsgathering, like sausage-making, involves stuffing offal into nasty tubes of intestine. You can sugar coat it, but you’re still going to eat some feces with your meat.