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How Gizmodo got its iPhone scoop (Q&A)

It wasn't the only gadget blog that had a crack at the purported iPhone 4G prototype, but Gizmodo was willing to pay, says Nick Denton, CEO of Gizmodo's parent company.

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

The unnamed person who now famously found the lost prototype iPhone approached both Gizmodo and Engadget, rival technology blogs, with an offer. Gizmodo came away with the device.

Gizmodo and iPhone 4G
Small gadget, big uproar: Gizmodo touts its iPhone 4G scoop. Screenshot by Erica Ogg/CNET

How Gizmodo and parent company Gawker Media ended up in possession of what appears to be a prototype of an unreleased and as-yet-unannounced iPhone 4G is just one of the burning questions answered Tuesday by Gawker CEO Nick Denton in an interview with CNET.

On Monday, Gizmodo published photos and analysis of what Denton and editors there said is the next generation of Apple's era-defining iPhone. Apple has bolstered Gizmodo's assertion that the phone is legitimate by claiming that a device in Gizmodo's possession belongs to the company and requesting it be returned. The story triggered interest and speculation around the globe.

In addition to the 5 million page views that Gawker generated from the story, the Internet publishing company has received its share of criticism.

Pundits and journalism experts questioned the propriety of Gawker's methods. Denton has acknowledged that he agreed to pay $5,000 to the person who possessed the phone after it was reportedly lost in a San Francisco Bay Area bar by an Apple employee. One publication has even noted that Gawker may have violated California laws on the buying of "stolen property."

Nick Denton
Nick Denton Nick Denton

Denton acknowledges paying for the phone, knowing that he knew the person he was handing the money to wasn't the owner. "That's what the media ethicists are focused on," Denton told CNET. "Most of the readers are either excited about the new iPhone or angry on behalf of the unfortunate Gray Powell [the Apple employee who Gizmodo said lost the phone]."

If Denton is correct that gadget fans didn't care about the ethical questions, they most certainly debated the authenticity of the phone.

What likely prompted some of the skepticism were the many questions left unanswered by Gizmodo's initial reports and subsequent stories. If Gizmodo opened the device, how come there wasn't more written about the processor or the graphics? How was Gizmodo-rival Engadget able to publish a story featuring several photos of the phone on Saturday, two days ahead of Gizmodo?

Denton answered some of these in an interview via instant message.

Q: Everybody here has been wondering about why we didn't hear more about the chip the iPhone was running or see a video of the phone running.
Nick Denton: Oh, I think that was explained in the piece, no?

Can you talk about how you guys found the person who picked up the phone?
Denton: Sure. A middleman approached us and Engadget with murky photos. We were skeptical at first. But [Gizmodo editor] Jason Chen actually went to see and hold the device -- and gradually our confidence in its authenticity grew.

How did Engadget get their hands on it?
Denton: They didn't. They just had the teaser photos. But I think they got suspicious that someone else was going with the story.

So, the [person selling the phone] was shopping the photos and the phone?
Denton: And so they jumped the gun with the sample photos.

To jump back to the chip; there's no mention of a chip or processor in the original story. You guys tore it apart so I was curious.
Denton: Best to ask Jason [Chen, who wrote the original Gizmodo story] about that.

I know you like straight-up journalism, so I know you'll appreciate this question: did Apple ask you to withhold any details about the phone?
Denton: Not to my knowledge, no.

Is there somebody else who would have negotiated with Apple besides you?
Denton: There was no communication I'm aware of with Apple before the piece was published.

Apple didn't know you had this before you published Monday morning?
Denton: Well, Engadget had published those murky pictures on Saturday--so they knew there was a device in the wild.

So you guys waited to call Apple until after publication? I'm just trying to understand the chronology.
Denton: We actually didn't call Apple executives--we called Gray Powell, the person we believed had lost the phone.

You guys bought this phone from somebody who didn't own it? Did you debate the ethics? That's what everybody seems to be focusing on today.
Denton: Actually, that's what the media ethicists are focused on. Most of the readers are either excited about the new iPhone or angry on behalf of the unfortunate Gray Powell.

Last question.
Denton: Sure.

Do you put any stock in the speculation that the lost phone was an Apple publicity stunt? Lots of people are saying that Apple may have floated this to generate lots of free buzz.
Denton: Ha, yeah, that's a funny one. I think [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs likes the spotlight on his keynotes. Apple has no need to tease consumers with early leaks...That's slightly at odds with the other question [about buying a phone from someone other than the owner] you were asking, though! We could be stooges or criminals--but not both simultaneously.