The News Embargo Is Dead. TechCrunch Killed It. Let’s Move On.

My passion is for storytelling, and the stories that fascinate me most are about new technologies, how they’re brought into being, and how they’re changing everyday life. But there’s a wrinkle that’s been distracting me from doing my best work and getting it out to the readers who will appreciate it most. It’s called the news embargo. It’s a failed institution, yet some players in the news ecosystem refuse to let it go, causing journalists like myself untold grief. Well, I’ve had enough.

The decline and fall of the embargo system is, admittedly, an inside-the-sausage-factory issue. It’s the sort of thing readers of news shouldn’t have to think about. But it affects the way consumers learn about important technology news stories, which makes it relevant to every entrepreneur and startup. So allow me to dwell for a moment on why the embargo is dead, why it’s time for companies and the public relations community to face up to that fact, and what we might put in its place.

An embargo is a gentlemen’s agreement between a newsmaker and a news organization to keep a story secret until a specific date and time. One of the main purposes of such agreements is to give every reporter who agrees to an embargo an equal amount of time to research and write a well-informed story before the publication date. Of course, the newsmaker benefits too; when a volley of press stories appear all at once, it heightens the sense that the news must be important. (Whether this is always true is a different matter.)

Embargoes emerged as a common practice in an era when there were far fewer major media outlets, meaning it was much easier to keep secrets. But in a 24/7, Internet-driven media world where anyone can be a publisher and PR professionals are sharing embargoed news more and more widely, there’s a growing epidemic of accidental and deliberate embargo-breaking. In the world of infotech coverage, they get broken 10 to 25 percent of the time, by my personal count. When an embargo falls, every organization that agreed to the embargo gets burned. Except the one that broke it; they get a scoop, and more and more often, there’s no punishment attached.

Frustration over that situation has led a few organizations to attack the system. In 2008, notably, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared “Death to the Embargo” and said that henceforth his publication would work to undermine the system by agreeing to embargoes, then breaking them at random. They’ve done this with gusto, and Arrington’s campaign has worked. Embargo promises, at least in the business and technology space I cover, are now tissue-thin. If TechCrunch—now a division of AOL—doesn’t break the embargo on a given story, someone else emboldened by its example often will.

Yet technology companies and their public relations firms cling to the practice. Every day I get half a dozen or more offers of embargoed stories. And I have a new standard response for these offers: No thank you.

Let me say that again. I will no longer agree to embargoes. If you are a tech company or a PR person and you’re looking to share a story under embargo, don’t even bother to contact me before the embargo time. Just send me your announcement once it’s public. I’m not saying that I will never again cover a story that was originally shared with other reporters under embargo. I’m just saying that I’m not going to do a bunch of work in advance of an embargo only to get burned at the last minute by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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