What Makes a Journalist? Thoughts on Apple and Think Secret

By Richard Menta 3/5/05

What makes a journalist? Is it someone with a journalism degree? Maybe it is more. Maybe, to be called a "real" journalist, you have to work for a big corporation. Maybe you need a slew of staff behind you like editors and copywriters and editorial assistants.

Or maybe you just have to publish.

But even here we find problems. Does publishing mean print and therefore anything scribed on the Web does not count? Some people feel that way, but TV and radio news folk count as journalists and they don't print anything.

My question is this, how many drops of blood define one as a journalist?

All of my musing stems from the recent ruling by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg. Kleinberg is presiding over Apple's case against three Internet rumor sites; PowerPage, AppleInsider and Think Secret.

Richard Menta

Apple filed court documents against the three for publishing accurate information on new Apple products prior to their official announcement. Apple filed their subpoena to force these entities to unmask their sources of this information.

Had the three entities been the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post there would be no subpoena. Legal precedent, guided by the first amendment, allows traditional news media to protect their sources.

But Kleinberg refused to extend these protections that shield journalists to the three Web sites mentioned. He did not give a reason for his action, but the action itself makes a statement - in his opinion there is no such thing as a Web journalist. The Internet does not count.

I am sure this will come as a surprise to many acquaintances of mine. People who worked as journalists for years in the traditional media only to leave for a myriad of reasons including poor pay, poor job stability, consolidation of the media, an over-saturation of journalism graduates, etc.

These professionals have the degrees, the credentials and the experience that come with the word journalist. Many have turned to the Web to express themselves. Some found online work as their new profession. Others publish online as a sideline. How can anyone say they are no longer journalists?

Kleinberg may have done just that, assuming this precedent stands.

Nicholas Ciarelli is the publisher of Think Secret. He's a 19 year-old college student and rabid Mac fan who has been writing about Apple since his early teens. As far as I know he has never held a full time job. Does this mean we can dismiss him as a journalist by simply quoting his age and lack of a degree?

For a "kid" I have to say he has done a pretty good job of getting the facts. His rumors were so accurate that his description of Apple's Photo iPod nearly matched Apple's later press release word-for-word. The traditional media didn't dig up this information, a media that has been iPod-crazed these last several months. Any newspaper, all which have a Web presence, would love to claim this scoop.

I can't blame Apple for wanting to stop these insider leaks. I am just disappointed in them for going after the fan sites that publish these leaks. Because these sites are mostly one-person affairs they must have looked awfully vulnerable to Apple. So Apple sued.

My feeling is that these leaks are an internal affair for Apple. It is their responsibility to see that company information is kept within the company. It is not the press' responsibility to police corporate leaks, especially since some leaks are really intentional marketing activities designed to generate greater attention.

Nicholas Ciarelli's site is heavily read, more so than most mid-sized magazines. These mid-sized magazines are extended journalist protections, why not Think Secret? I guess volume of readership is not a criterion with regards to who can call themselves a journalist.

So what are the criteria as defined by Judge Kleinberg? I would like to know.


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