Buy a scoop, pay the consequences

Tech blog Gizmodo paid US$5,000 for its scoop on a next-generation iPhone. As result, police seized the editor’s computers and Apple is gearing up its ample legal team. The question on everyone’s mind: will this blogger be afforded the same rights as a journalist?

Gizmodo, a tech blog owned by Nick Denton’s Gawker media empire, spent the cash on a prototype iPhone that an Apple engineer had left behind in an California bar.

This isn’t the first time Gawker has paid for information. The New York Times reports that women’s blog Jezebel paid US$10,000 for proof about photoshopped models on the cover of women’s magazines.

But this time, the consequences were much more severe. For one, police showed up at Chen’s house with a search warrant. He wasn’t home, so they let themselves in (although promised Chen he could be reimbursed for the busted front door).

A blogger from Editors Webblog says:

“Last Friday, Gizmodo editor Jason Chen arrived home around 9:45 to find police in his home, removing 4 computers and 2 servers with a search warrant signed by the judge of the Superior Court of San Mateo as their defense. In response, Gawker Chief Operating Officer and legal counsel Gaby Derbyshire claims this search was illegal under a California shield law created especially to protect journalists, and that the police must return Chen’s belongings.”

“What has since erupted across the web and likely in legal courts soon is a debate over the legality of Gizmodo‘s iPhone scoop, the application of the untested shield law, and, most fundamentally, whether bloggers are considered journalists in the eyes of the law.”

Considering Steve Jobs’ history of suing for leaks of Apple products or news, it’s doubtful that they’ll let the Gizmodo scoop slip past them.

The California shield law in question states that “No warrant shall issue for any item or items described in Section 1070 of the Evidence Code.”

Section 1070:

(a) A publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service, or any person who has been so connected or employed, cannot be adjudged in contempt by a judicial, legislative, administrative body, or any other body having the power to issue subpoenas, for refusing to disclose, in any proceeding as defined in Section 901, the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for publication in a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public. eyes of the law.”

The shield law may in fact be moot if Apple can prove that the phone was stolen property –in other words, they have to prove that the person who found it tried to find its owner. If they didn’t, further complicating the issue is whether Gizmodo knew it was purchasing a stolen phone.

Editors Webblog says

“The application of the shield law would require the courts first to rule on whether bloggers can be considered journalists, in one of the first cases to provide a legal test for this contentious issue.  Derbyshire wrote in a letter sent to the police that “Jason is a journalist who works full time for our company,” and most blog editors interviewed by Bloggasm‘s Simon Owens agreed that the shield law should protect Chen, though some pointed out the unorthodoxy of Gizmodo‘s methods.

“Gawker Media notoriously flaunts accepted practices of traditional journalism to great effect,” said Mediaite editor Colby Hall. And LA Times blog editor Tony Pierce noted that even Gawker Media’s CEO Nick Denton didn’t quite define the Gawker line of blogs as journalism.

“We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention,” Denton said to the Washington Post.  Pierce remarked that “Gizmodo doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on if their own boss says they don’t really do journalism there.”

New York Times writer David Carr wonders if the price was worth the story:

“[Denton] paid $5,000 for the phone. What was it worth? Some reports about the scoop have speculated that based on the site’s ad rates, the 3.6 million unique visitors were worth as much as $200,000, but all of the advertising on Gizmodo was presold. (Eastman Kodak was the lucky winner on Monday, when the exclusive ran, having bought out the site for the day.)

Mr. Denton himself estimates that all-in — legal fees, traffic bonuses to the writers and the cost of extra bandwidth for all the yummy traffic — it actually cost him $20,000.

The price could be higher than that: The New York Times reported this weekend in the Bits blog that local authorities are considering whether to file criminal charges in the sale of the phone.

“Any surge of traffic is either a waste or a bonus to the advertiser,” Mr. Denton said in an instant message chat. “The real value is in marketing.”