In his new biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes some of the behind-the-scenes dealings between the Apple CEO and publishers after the iPad was launched in 2010. “I would love to help quality journalism,” Jobs said. “We can’t depend on bloggers for our news. We need real reporting and editorial oversight more than ever. So I’d love to find a way to help people create digital products where they actually can make money.”
As part of that effort, Jobs dined with 50 top Times executives to show off the iPad and, as Isaacson put it, “find a modest price point for digital content that consumers would accept.” He said the Times knew how many readers would pay the highest price point (a print subscription), and how many would read for free online.
“You should go after the midpoint, which is about 10 million digital subscribers,” [Jobs] told them. “And that means your digital subs should be very cheap and simple, one click and $5 a month at most.”
The Times decided to charge $15 every four weeks for Web and mobile phone access and $20 for Web and iPad access.
According to Isaacson, Jobs was particularly interested in helping The New York Times because it hadn’t yet figured out how to charge for digital content.
“One of my personal projects this year, I’ve decided, is to try to help — whether they want it or not — the Times,” he told me early in 2010. “I think it’s important for the country for them to figure it out.”
Isaacson describes publishers’ frustration over being unable to access subscribers’ data and credit card information. A New York Times circulation executive pushed back against Jobs, as did Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. But Rupert Murdoch relented, recalling later that he knew Jobs wouldn’t bend, and he wouldn’t have either if he were in Jobs’ position.
Isaacson writes that Jobs hated the initial design of The Daily, so he had Apple designers work on it. News Corp.’s designers tried again, and according to Murdoch, “ten days later we went back and showed them both, and [Jobs] actually liked our team’s version better. It stunned us.”
Jobs and Murdoch’s work on The Daily created a bond between the two, with Jobs having Murdoch over to his house twice for dinner. “Jobs joked that he had to hide the dinner knives on such occasions,” Isaacson writes, “because he was afraid that his liberal wife was going to eviscerate Murdoch when he walked in.”
Murdoch invited Jobs to speak at a News Corp. management retreat, where James Murdoch interviewed Jobs for two hours in June 2010:
“He was very blunt and critical of what newspapers were doing in technology,” Murdoch recalled. “He told us we were going to find it hard to get things right, because you’re in New York, and anyone who’s any good at tech works in Silicon Valley.”
Afterward, Gordon McLeod, head of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, told Jobs, “you probably just cost me my job.” Isaacson says Murdoch chuckled a little when he said later, “It ended up being true.”
At the retreat, Jobs pressed Murdoch on Fox News, arguing that the network was destructive to the nation and harmful to Murdoch’s reputation:
“You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said. “I’ve had some meetings with James, and I think he agrees with me. I can just tell.”
Murdoch later said he was used to people like Jobs complaining about Fox. “He’s got sort of a left-wing view on this,” he said.
Murdoch agreed to have his staff create a highlight reel of a week of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck’s shows, and Jobs later told Isaacson that he was going to ask Jon Stewart’s staff to put together a similar highlight reel. He apparently never sent it to Murdoch, who says in the book he would have been happy to have seen it.
A few other notable journalism-related anecdotes in the book:
- When people again started to question Jobs’ health in 2008 after the unveiling of the iPhone 3G, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column criticizing Apple’s culture of secrecy regarding Jobs’ health. As he was seeking comment from Apple, Jobs himself called Nocera:
“This is Steve Jobs,” he began. “You think I’m an arrogant asshole who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” After that rather arresting opening, Jobs offered up some information about his health, but only if Nocera would keep it off the record. Nocera honored the request, but he was able to report that, while Jobs’s health problems amounted to more than ‘a common bug,’ “they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer.” Jobs had given Nocera
more information than he was willing to give his own board and shareholders, but it was not the full truth.
- In 2010, Apple came under fire for rejecting an app by Mark Fiore, who later won the 2010 Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, because it defamed President George Bush. Concerned about comparisons to Big Brother, Jobs called New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman “to discuss how to draw lines without looking like a censor.” Jobs asked Friedman to head an advisory group to come up with guidelines, but the Times said it would be a conflict of interest, and no such committee was formed.