By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010; C01
When was the last time that Time and Newsweek went with the same cover subject whose name wasn't Obama?
Clearly, such treatment would be reserved for a development so indisputably vital that it would change civilization as we know it. That event has arrived, in the form of a $500-to-$800 product that you should feel guilty for not having, even though it doesn't hit the stores until Saturday.
The iPad might turn out to be so revolutionary that we'll look back on its unveiling like Alexander Graham Bell speaking to Mr. Watson. Or not. But Apple and its media maestro, Steve Jobs, are once again reaping what amounts to tens of millions of dollars in free publicity.
Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel says he remained skeptical as "a lot of people in our business have looked at the iPad as the Jesus tablet, the savior." But "when Steve came here for breakfast" to demonstrate the device earlier this year, "I thought it's a fantastic thing for almost every kind of content, including surfing the Web.
"We've had a long relationship with Steve. Steve looks at Time as an iconic American brand. We've got exclusive access at a time when he's giving nobody else access."
Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham says his technology team convinced him "that the iPad could finally be the device that does for visual content what the iPod did for music. To my mind, there's no bigger story about media or culture -- and media and culture affect everything else -- than the future of the delivery of news, and that made an iPad cover a clear call."
Even veteran Apple-watchers who have seen the company make headlines with mere product upgrades are shaking their heads. "Their ability to get press all out of proportion to news value has amazed me for decades -- and I say that as a former Apple beat reporter, longtime fanboy and someone who's counting the minutes until UPS shows up with my iPad," says Mark Potts, chief executive of the online technology company GrowthSpur and a former Washington Post reporter. "The level of hype is insane. There's simply no other company that gets coverage of product launches like this."
The same media outlets covering the phenomenon are also hoping to profit from the iPad. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times struck nondisclosure agreements with Apple in exchange for early samples for their development teams.
"We've been allowed to work on one, and it's under padlock and key," Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the Journal, said last month. "The key is turned by Apple every night." The Journal is offering a stand-alone subscription to its iPad content for $3.99 a week.
Time, USA Today, CBS, NBC, ABC, National Public Radio and many other media organizations have also rushed out their new iPad applications. The Washington Post, which did not receive advance access to the device and has not published a detailed review, is working on its iPad app.
Print reviewers might harbor a deep-seated wish that this tablet computer proves capable of rescuing their battered business, thereby preserving their way of life. What's more, the folks who write about technology adore fancy gizmos. Many are Mac users. They revel in the Apple-orchestrated drama of these rollouts.
Apple is widely credited with making elegant products, from the iPod to the iPhone, that have lifted the level of consumer technology. But there is something about the company -- and the secrecy cultivated by Jobs, who famously refused to talk about his own health problems -- that makes some of the smartest tech writers go weak in the knees. Keep in mind that Jobs unveiled this thing back in January.
The first wave of reviews has been overwhelmingly positive.
Newsweek's Daniel Lyons (who blogs as Fake Steve Jobs): "The iPad could eventually become your TV, your newspaper, and your bookshelf."
Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg: "After spending hours and hours with it, I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop."
Time's Stephen Fry: "I have met five British Prime Ministers, two American Presidents, Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson and the Queen. My hour with Steve Jobs certainly made me more nervous than any of those encounters. . . . I do believe Jobs to be a truly great figure, one of the small group of innovators who have changed the world."
But some have also pointed out flaws. New York Times columnist David Pogue delivered a mixed review, noting: "When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable. The bottom line is that you can get a laptop for much less money. . . . Besides: If you've already got a laptop and a smartphone, who's going to carry around a third machine?"
Rather than relying on news coverage alone, Apple marketers also landed a high-profile product placement. Wednesday's episode of the ABC sitcom "Modern Family" was devoted to the iPad, with the striving-to-be-hip dad exclaiming: "Oh my God, you got it! All this time I said I didn't care but I do care! I care so much!"
Apple has logged 240,000 advance orders, but the question is whether the media blitz will convince millions of ordinary people that, recession or no recession, they simply must have a product that they didn't know they needed.
"It's amazing how we all get caught up in this," Stengel says.