22 Jun 2009 11:30 pm   //   Filed under: In the news

Guess the Journal’s anonymous source

“Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple Inc. since January to treat an undisclosed medical condition, received a liver transplant in Tennessee about two months ago.” — The Wall Street Journal, June 20

That was a front-page scoop on Saturday. The story communicated one fact in the first sentence with no attribution, and the rest of the article was mostly background. It’s a weird way to structure a story. It tells us the reporters knew one thing with absolute certainty, but didn’t now anything else.

I enjoy trying to guess who the anonymous sources are in stories. (Quite often it’s somebody quoted on-the-record elsewhere in the story.) So who was the Journal‘s source? It’s curious that rather than attributing it to a “knowledgeable source” or “someone close to Jobs” or “an Apple source,” the Journal writers left it totally unspecific. That alone is an important clue. It means the writers are so sure their information is accurate that they’re willing to write from assertion (sometimes called the “Voice of God”). They must have proof the story is true. Yet they also have a good reason to cite no source. Based on those clues, here are my top five suspects, in descending order of likelihood.

  1. Family friend: Someone at Dow Jones, perhaps an editor, is a personal friend of Jobs or someone in Jobs’ family. Faced with information this significant, and feeling pride for the newspaper where they work, this person let the reporters in on the secret.
  2. Eavesdropping: The reporters learned it through irregular means. They overheard a conversation, or opened a piece of mis-delivered mail, or learned about it from a private Internet message board they’re not supposed to be on.
  3. Unsanctioned company leak: The reporters learned it from a document leaked to them by a friend in the company. The document could have been a report to the board, an e-mail from Jobs, or even an internal voice mail. But specifying what it was could expose the person who leaked it (and who evidently likes to trade favors with journalists, or just likes to make trouble).
  4. Steve Jobs: It’s possible Jobs passed the information along to the reporters himself, perhaps through an intermediary (see suspect #1), to cool down a rumor that was heating up. However, I don’t think the reporters themselves spoke to Jobs, since they went to the trouble of writing, “Mr. Jobs didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.” That would be a dishonest thing to put in a story if you had any communication with the subject, even if the statement were technically true.
  5. Sanctioned company leak: A PR person or board member told a reporters the news on the condition of no attribution. It might be to Apple’s benefit for a story like this to appear in a single, friendly venue on a Saturday, a few weeks before Jobs’s return. It might even be a way to prepare the market for more a grave announcement about Jobs’s health. However, this isn’t Apple’s style, and the weird language of the story suggest to me that something that ordinary didn’t actually go down.