Did lost iPhone lead to blog bidding war?

While rival gadget blogs Gizmodo and Engadget were both approached by the seller of the now-famous iPhone 4G, they appear to have approached a possible purchase far differently.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read

There was no bidding war between Gizmodo and Engadget over the now-famous, misplaced iPhone 4G, Joshua Topolsky, Engadget's editor in chief, told CNET on Tuesday.

Joshua Topolsky, editor in chief of Engadget, said he never made an offer for the iPhone that Gizmodo bought for $5,000. Morini & Montanari

Engadget managers never tendered an offer for the leaked phone, never were sure of the legality of buying it, and, of course, never got their hands on the device, Topolsky said.

Instead, as is well-known by now, it was Gizmodo and its parent company, Gawker Media, that were willing to buy the phone from an unnamed source for $5,000 and detail the device's features in a story.

The handset appears to be the smartphone that Apple is expected to offer to the public sometime later this year. It is Gizmodo's story that is receiving widespread media attention, as well as recording more than 7 million page views, according to the blog's own tally. The story has drawn some kudos, but Gizmodo's engagement in so-called "checkbook" journalism and willingness to buy property from someone other than the rightful owner has also attracted a heap of criticism.

One person who won't criticize Gizmodo, however, is Topolsky.

"My hat is off to those guys," Topolsky told CNET. "I think Gizmodo got a huge scoop here, however they did it. If (Gawker Media CEO) Nick Denton can pay for a story and he's comfortable with that and they are fine with dealing with the repercussions, then this is the story. If you're going to pay for a story, this is the one to pay for."

Topolsky tried to put the distinctive nature of the story into context: "It's one thing to get leaked photos, or get a little time with something before it's released, but to own the thing--especially an Apple product--two months before it's released is unheard of."

But if this was such a big tech-news event, why didn't Engadget make a bid? Gizmodo and Engadget are rival blogs that go toe-to-toe to publish gadget rumors and news first. Why did Engadget let Denton and crew walk away with one of the most attention-grabbing product stories to emerge in a long time? (Read Gawker Media's recounting of events here.)

"If Nick Denton can pay for a story and he's comfortable with that and they are fine with dealing with the repercussions, then this is the story. If you're going to pay for a story, this is the one to pay for."
--Joshua Topolsky, Engadget editor in chief

First, Topolsky said the seller of the iPhone, whom he declined to name, informed him he had sold the device to Gizmodo before contacting Engadget. The seller came back and said that there was still a chance the Phone could be retrieved from Gizmodo for a price, but Topolsky said he walked away from the deal without ever making an offer.

The situation made Topolsky nervous. Apple has yet to announce a launch date or even acknowledge the existence of a next-generation iPhone. The story the source gave of how the phone was obtained seemed unlikely: somehow, one of the most secretive and security-conscious technology companies in the world had lost a phone in a San Francisco Bay Area bar.

Topolsky said the photos of the device he received from the source weren't conclusive. Sources have told CNET that Gizmodo and Engadget weren't the only news sources the seller contacted about buying the device. At least two other blogs were contacted, sources close to those negotiations told CNET. The sources added that one of the blogs in question concluded the device was a fake.

Topolsky said this caused him to wonder whether the iPhone being hawked was a knockoff. Regardless, he still considered buying the handset.

"There was definitely a point where we entertained spending the money," Topolsky said. "We had never been in this situation and were definitely conflicted, definitely questioning what we should do. The whole thing seemed so sleazy. I eventually talked to our lawyers, and they cautioned against doing anything with this phone. But by that time, we had already decided to just leave it alone."

On Saturday, Engadget published the photos supplied by the source and beat Gizmodo to the news of the phone's existence by two days. It's worth noting that when Engadget managers published their story, they still weren't sure the iPhone in question was a legitimate prototype, according to Topolsky.

Denton doesn't seem to have done quite as much fretting over the ethical questions or the possibility of a backlash.

On the contrary, he appears to be reveling in the controversy and attention the story has brought. He told CNET that while media ethicists scratch their heads over rights and wrongs, his readers are "either excited about the new iPhone or angry on behalf of the unfortunate Gray Powell." Powell is the Apple employee who, Gizmodo said, lost the phone in a Redwood City, Calif., bar.

Does all the fanfare over Gizmodo's story make Topolsky wish he could do anything differently?

"This was a stressful and confusing situation," he said. "But I'm happy with the way it worked out."