Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

MediaWatch: More About Embargoes...

Posted by Tom Foremski - November 2, 2009

Last Thursday I was on a panel discussing embargoes. (There will eventually be video of the event.) The moderator was Sam Whitmore, and I was sitting next to Dylan Tweeney from Wired, on my right was Damon Darlin from the New York Times, and Mark Glaser from MediaShift on my far right.

Unfortunately Mike Arrington from TechCrunch couldn't make it, which is a shame because plenty of PR people have told me TechCrunch regularly breaks embargoes and it would have been good to have heard his side of the story.

Dave Needle from InternetNews.com wrote a very good reound-up of what was said: This tech news is not embargoed - InternetNews:The Blog - David Needle

Here is an extract:

While Tweney continues to selectively agree to embargoes (as does InternetNews.com), he said he recently "punished" a PR firm by refusing to communicate with them for six weeks after a competitor was allowed to publish an embargoed story ahead of everyone else. He said the PR firm's excuse was that the vendor, a handset manufacturer, had leaked the news to a blog directly without the PR firm knowing.

The New York Times Darlin said embargoes are generally used as a tool by PR firms to co-opt the media. That said, Darlin said the Times often accept embargoes because they ensure reporters don't miss a story and they have more time to do a thorough job.

That thoroughness is limited. Once you've agreed to an embargo, you can't share that news ahead of time with the analysts and competitors you might otherwise call for comment. Vendors will sometimes provide a list of analysts that have been pre-briefed on their news.

While many took shots at the embargo process and the games PR folk sometimes play, Chris Preimesberger, an editor at eWeek, said embargoes help him get his job done.

"They give me the background information and the time to do the piece right," said Preimesberger, during a follow up Q&A session. He estimates 75 to 80 percent of the stories eWeek does are facilitated by the embargo process, the rest are breaking news.

"I have no problem with the process and don't feel like I'm being manipulated," said Preimesberger.

My proposal that holding a press conference, real or virtual, so that everyone gets the news at the same time seemed to have a fair amount of support as an alternative to embargoes. But overall, I didn't think that we made much progress in creating any new rules around embargoes.

However, I was surprised that there is such a lot of interest in this subject. Embargoes have been around since year dot and we all have our way of working with them, selectively of course. They are not going away, that's certain.

But I think it could and should lead to media outlets rethinking their editorial policy. Do we have to be first with with news? If a dozen other publications also have the news what is our value-add?

There is more to be gained from developing an unique editorial stance than there is from pressing the publish button a few minutes earlier than anyone else..

The panel discussion sparked a few blog posts. Mike Yamamoto, the founding editor of CNET's News.com wrote an interesting post. The absurdity of embargoes

What was especially interesting was his stories about the use of embargoes when he worked in the Washington D.C. bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Government agencies routinely placed embargo notices on their news releases. It's a practice that companies and PR firms have attempted to use too.

For some reason, many companies and government agencies seem to think that simply receiving so-called embargoed material automatically means you have agreed to it--even if you never knew the information existed, let alone had consented to any restrictions, before it landed in your inbox or mailroom unsolicited.

It would be the equivalent of my mass-emailing a contract to sell my house for $10 million, then holding its recipients to the provisions of the "agreement." When they rightly tell me to go pound salt, I would cry foul and claim that they broke the rules.

Mr Yamamoto rightly points out:

Because News.com did not agree to embargoes, therefore, their restrictions did not apply to us. It's impossible to "break" a contract you never agreed to.

Lastly, I feel it is up to the PR industry to police this issue. If they are working with a journalist or organization that routinely breaks their word, then they should not disclose embargoed information the next time.


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