Hello, I’m Mark Spoonauer. And I’m an Access Journalist

Whether you agree with the practice of checkbook journalism or not, it’s hard to deny that Gizmodo got its $5000 worth and then some with its epic scoop of what looks like Apple’s next smart phone. Do I think the way they obtained the lost device was legal? I’ll leave that for the courts to decide. What I do have a problem with is how the site attempted to deflect criticism of its arguably unethical behavior—including being satisfied with the halfhearted attempts to return the prototype and the unnecessary outing of the Apple engineer who left it in a bar—by portraying “access journalists” as corrupted, easily influenced pawns.

Guess what? I’m an access journalist. And I’m probably not alone in saying that this characterization is not only unfair but wrong.

What’s access journalism? According to Gizmodo Editor at Large Joel Johnson, it’s essentially a form of favoritism. In exchange for granting reporters early access to its products, he argues that tech companies like Apple receive positive coverage. Johnson admits that he is part of this system in that he often gets free gear to test and sneak previews of products before the general public. But he also implies that by publishing the next iPhone story Gizmodo has risen above this influence and has achieved some sort of moral victory.

The point I’m trying to make is that painting all access journalists with a broad stroke is just as unfair as saying that all bloggers are unethical. I’ve been at LAPTOP for nearly eight years now, and I’ve never allowed early access to a product (which is necessary to provide users with timely reviews) to influence our opinion. For proof, look no further than our MacBook Air review from 2009. We were one of the first to get it, and we gave it 2.5 stars. Why? Because it delivered below-average battery life for an ultraportable, and its sleek design didn’t make up for that shortfall. We don’t give something 4 stars or an Editors’ Choice award unless we believe it’s deserved, otherwise we won’t have any credibility with our readers.

If I were just another access journalist I also wouldn’t have given the BlackBerry Storm 2.5 stars (another product we got before a lot of other people), nor would I run stories like The Best & Worst Laptop Brands. We’ve established a reputation for being tough, thorough, and fair. And while I’m sure many sites feel pressure to spin their coverage a certain way, I know that LAPTOP has many access journalist peers that always put their readers before the companies with which they work.

It’s true that tech companies prioritize media outlets based on a limited supply of evaluation samples prior to a product’s launch. And sometimes we’ve been towards the top of the list and other times nowhere close to that. This practice can certainly be frustrating. But even if we don’t make that initial cut I do think it’s useful for consumers to get professional insight from those who have evaluated dozens if not hundreds of other products and who have in-depth knowledge of a given category before deciding to invest their own hard-earned money. Readers are usually smart enough to tell the shills from the critics they can trust.

There’s another benefit of access journalism that Johnson ignored in his piece. The companies with which I’ve established close relationships over the years respect my opinion, and I’m often asked to give my honest assessment of not only those products about to be released but also gear that’s on the horizon. (Apple is an exception because of its enforcement of secrecy.) When I give my opinion, I do so not only as an expert but also as an advocate for users everywhere. I know for a fact that this sort of access has improved what ultimately comes to market—or at least its successors.

So am I an access journalist? Yes, and damn proud of it, too.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Joe Banks Says:

    You do a disservice to journalists by trying to rationalize your legitimacy. You are a PR Agent that may or may not be acting independently. Being paid by access or otherwise makes every word you print suspect.

  2. James Pikover Says:

    There’s a reason why Consumer Reports magazine is favored among many people for their product reviews: they buy everything they review. No matter what you say, when you get something for free, whether you like it or not, you are swayed.

    This article basically states that if a Judge were constantly bribed but never accepted the money, he wouldn’t be swayed because he got used to the offerings and denials. You, Mr. Spoonauer, may have become not only used to but reliant on free products to come in for your testing, but imagine if suddenly they stopped. What would you do? Probably call the company and find out what’s up, send emails, find the right person to talk to…whatever it took, because hell, you need it. It’s your job.

    Yet in the end your job still required someone to to freely give you their product to test. If they only promised to loan it for a few weeks every time, then yes, you wouldn’t be so easily swayed. But even then, it’s still not yours. If you break it, you’re still liable to someone else. That gives them power over you, whether you like it or not, and whether you acknowledge it or not.

    Based on your article, I would be considered an access journalist too. I write for Tom’s Guide, and do very similar work as Laptop Magazine. I too rely on free products, because both I and my company could not possibly afford to buy every product we test, even if we were to simply return them for a refund later on (which would in some way also be unethical). So I see where you’re coming from. It’s very easy to bite the hand that feeds you because you feel so disconnected, through years of working with hundreds of companies, to one which releases a product you end up rating poorly.

    Now, if you went on to say that there’s nothing you could do about it, nothing anyone without the proper funding like Consumer Reports magazine has, then you’d be right. But you don’t. You say you are unbiased, but how many free products sit on your desk as you wrote this article? In your office? How many are being used now, or were given away to friends and family, or are being kept just for a future article, but for now sit and collect dust? I see the same thing, constantly, whether it’s hardware or software. I could go into disturbing detail at how I must clean my office every month or so of all the new products I receive for testing, because if I don’t, the carpet will disappear entirely.

    Is what Gizmodo did right? Perhaps not, but at least they provided full disclosure. They stated that they paid $5000 for the biggest scoop this year, and gave the whole story of how it happened. Do you say in every article when the product you’re testing was sent from the manufacturer, free of charge? No. So please, don’t say you aren’t swayed, you aren’t biased. Being an access journalist is exactly that: being on the company payroll to make good relationships with manufacturers for the chance to receive and test their products early, free of charge. That makes you on two payrolls, even if one doesn’t actually supply you with a paycheck at the end of the month.

    As long as you remember this, like I do my best to every day when I get into work, you’ll push that bias further and further away, because ultimately you’ll report for your audience, not for the manufacturer. But don’t be fooled. No matter what happens, you’re still going to email or call that manufacturer and send them a link, or a copy of that magazine, for them to look at. You can take a guess at what that really means.

  3. K. T. Bradford Says:

    @James “If they only promised to loan it for a few weeks every time, then yes, you wouldn’t be so easily swayed.”

    Actually, that is how it works for most journalists. We don’t get these laptops “for free”, we’re loaned the laptops for the purposes of reviewing and testing them. We do have to send them back.

    I know that for some sites and blogs this isn’t the case, but for us it is.

  4. Tyler Williams Says:

    You receive early access to the latest tech products for free. Are you trying to say you don’t like tech products? You don’t get even a little excited that you get to play around with it before everyone else, free of cost to you? If you say you don’t, I won’t believe you for a second. If you didn’t like tech products you won’t make a living writing about them. If you say you do, then it negates your entire argument.

    The fact that you get something early and don’t have to pay for it effects your judgment of it. To deny this is deceptive and dishonest, both to yourself and your readers. And no amount of negative reviews is “proof” that you’re unaffected. Maybe you gave it a harsher review than you might have otherwise because you were excited but it didn’t live up to your expectations. Or maybe you would have been more harsh if you had to pay for it with your own money. Who can say? Certainly not you.

    I accept that if you had to pay for every product you review you wouldn’t be to able review many products. I accept that your judgment can be swayed by getting free and early access to tech products. I’m okay with it – as long as you’re honest about it. But don’t try and tell me you’re immune to bias or excitement. That just says you think very little of your readers.

  5. Alan Says:

    Mark, do you sense that your access to Apple products for review (or to the company itself) has changed since that unfavorable review of the MacBook Air? (I have not read the article btw.)

  6. Mark Spoonauer Says:

    Nope. Our access to Apple’s products has not changed since that MacBook review. And since then we’ve run other pieces that are critical–including Netbooks vs. iPad.

  7. K. T. Bradford Says:

    @Tyler, are you a tech journalist or blogger? I ask because your view of how this works or how it makes journalists “feel” comes form outside observation, not personal knowledge. But I’m interested in knowing for sure.

  8. Larry Says:

    @joe @james

    Anyone ranting about Mark being “suspect” for getting loaners ahead of time is naive at best and totally full of shit at worse.

    EVERYONE covering tech media, Gizmodo including, gets offered access if they’re big enough. EVERYONE covering tech media, Consumer Reports included, is a PR agent by your definition. All publicity, including “objective reviews by people who buy the products themselves” is a form of PR by your definition.

    Press events in the tech world almost always involve food, drink, and access to information and hands-on time with products. Those who get invited get the access. Those who don’t don’t get it.

    So what should Mark and the many like him do, turn down invites to these events and post their coverage of product launches and other “breaking news” late on purpose? Or go to the events but choose not to talk to any PR people or company reps for fear of being swayed? Or go and talk but turn down the free booze and nibbles?

    Grow up, people. It’s commerce. It’s industry. It’s how it works.

    You have a choice to make – and an obligation to yourself – when you decide who’s words to read and believe, and who’s to dismiss. But make no mistake, everyone’s part of the industry and everyone gets offered access.

    Consumer Reports turns it all down? Fine. But have you ever read their tech coverage? They’re so behind the curve it’s insane. Maybe they’re objective, but they’re incredibly under-informed. Go figure.

  9. Phil Sky Says:

    New in social media world but we’re working on it. Off the wall question. In article “4G Lie”. The title had these 3 funky sandy looking caps. What were they made of; could we purchase some for marketing gifts?

  10. Phil Sky Says:

    Mark, neat article “4G Lies”Got kick out of title art work using 3 sandy looking caps. Could we buy those for a marketing promo?

  11. Lon Says:

    Mark, you’re obviously carrying an iphone. Your article comparing the 4s to android on fox news really missed the mark. Having owned, (not just played with, but actually lived with) both phones several times, I can tell that you have only played with android phones and read about them. first of all, siri isn’t new. I’ve had that on my iphone for years. second, android has siri-like apps, and more than one, Vlingo and Voice come to mind. Ask siri what sound an elephant makes and see if it plays the sound for you. Or how far it is to the moon and see if it reads, out loud, and entire scientific explanation of the distance. and the statement “android is more flexible but more confusing”????? what’s that? If you can’t run a smart phone, keep your landline. And Apple won that round? Also the screen brightness and resolution… are you serious? Have you seen AMOLED? Apple is good, but it doesn’t beat the large screen resolutions of android phones. It’s no “draw” on keyboards, either. Apple doesn’t even put punctuation on the keyboard. You have to switch screens just to put in a comma. Android wins that one with the stock keyboard… and look at all the alternative keyboards with even more features. And the camera? some magazine reviews give the edge to some of the android phones. That’s just your personal preferences showing, or you didn’t do enough reading. And if you’re interested, I have a list of about 18 items that iphone STILL can’t do… things that made me go back to android. the worst thing about apple is the lack of widgets so I can get information without opening an app and logging online. Yes, I’m an apple computer fan… I have two imacs (one is a 27″ quadcore with i7 and 16 gb of RAM), but their mobile devices suck when compared to android.

  12. Doug Glass Says:

    Oh The Sacred J still has you by the low parts doesn’t he? The problem is you have a vested interest in the industry and if you don’t talk about new gadgets being the best there ever was, you’ll work yourself out of a job. You exist because the gizmo industry exists and you have to do everything you can to make it thrive. That includes biased reviews and soul selling to keep your job.

    But keep it up, all this grandstanding is always an awesome clown act. And I do so enjoy a good clown act.

    Target’s up son….take your best shot. You always do and you always know just the right words. Are they the same words you use off the job? I assume blogging is considered a job of sorts now days; it certainly isn’t real journalism.

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