Magazines aren't in the business of breaking news. But had Google PR not inadvertently leaked word of its Google Chrome Web browser, Steven Levy's feature in Wired's forthcoming October issue might have been both the first and last word on the project. It required the Faustian bargain typical of fly-on-the-wall features: Get deep inside the company, in exchange for letting the subject dictate the timing of the story. But this story was trickier than most, since Chrome was still a secret when the issue was under production. Normally, dozens of eyes would fall on the story. How did a magazine's labor-heavy business model intersect with Google's maniacal obsession with secrecy? This was, in some ways, the exact opposite of last year's cover story on "radical transparency." Bob Cohn, Wired's executive editor, explained to Valleywag how they pulled it off:
The trick was we knew it was going to launch sometime in early September, and we wanted to be out with it as close as possible. That meant the story had to close in late August when it was still a huge secret. Both Steven and I had made considerable promises that it wouldn't leak from us. We pledged that we could be trusted with this information in advance so we could produce a long-form magazine story on a monthly cycle.
Cohn set aside space for the feature under a codename, "Go Lego" — an obvious anagram of "Google," but also a plausible topic for Wired to cover. Files were saved in space used for the September issue, because "no one ever looks back at the old issue," says Cohn. Then, Cohn told staffers the fake story was cancelled. "We told people that we're going to pull that story for ad sales reasons, but we're going to keep it on the map for bureaucratic reasons," says Cohn. Those in on the secret prepared a fake table of contents and even a cover. "Only 8 or 10 people knew — not because we don't trust people, but because I and Steven had pledged it would be very closely held," says Cohn. (Wired has a staff of 49, according to the masthead.) "Normally the staff sees the entire magazine. I sent out an email this morning letting people know. A lot of people came into my office surprised there was a story they didn't even know about, words on the cover they hadn't read." Did it ruffle feathers? Perhaps a little, says Cohn: "This morning an editor told me about a story he was working on, and then he said, 'And there's a secret story I can't tell you about.'" What's telling about this episode? There's more at work here than the standard negotiations for a fly-on-the-wall feature, I think. Google's workers are so fervent in their do-gooder convictions — that their viewpoints are reasonable, that their requests for secrecy are normal, that their cause is fair and just — that they can't help being a bit infectious. Google Chrome has a feature that puts the browser in an ultraprivate mode. Here's the question: Can Googlers ever turn off their own secrecy switch?