The News Embargo Is Dead. TechCrunch Killed It. Let’s Move On.
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one of my esteemed peers at AOL. (I should note at this point that I’m speaking only for myself here. My colleagues in Xconomy’s other cities may continue to agree to embargoes; that’s up to them.)
Here’s how I see the situation. If a news story is truly important at 8:00 am on Wednesday, it will still be important at 10:00 am, or on Thursday, or even the following week. I’ll attend to it at a time of my own choosing, after I figure out how it ranks compared to the other stories I’m working on and whether I can bring something unique to the telling. And oh, by the way, putting an embargo on a minor story may imbue it with a temporary sense of urgency, but it doesn’t transform it into a bigger story. In fact, the opposite is often true: embargoes are employed so indiscriminately these days that whenever I’m offered an embargoed story, my first instinct is to ask why the people sharing the news felt they needed to dress it up with an artificial deadline.
The truth is that the stories Xconomy readers respond to best—and the ones I love writing the best—are almost never the embargoed items. They’re things we dug up on our own, through old-fashioned journalism: meeting people, getting them to tell their stories, following the threads, tying them together in new ways. Magazine-length profiles of companies or entrepreneurs; reviews of important new hardware of software technologies; Q&As; interpretive essays—these are my personal strong suits, and they’re rarely the types of stories that hinge on today’s news.
Even when Xconomy applies this feature-style thinking to an embargoed story, writing a story that’s longer or deeper than anyone else’s, the impact of our work is diluted by the fact that our headline hits Google or TechMeme at the same time as a dozen others on the same subject.
And there’s one more big problem with embargoes: newsmakers haven’t been holding up their half of the bargain. Part of the gentlemen’s agreement is that if a reporter or a news organization deliberately breaks an embargo, there will retribution. The company or PR firm whose embargo got flouted is supposed to exclude the offending reporter or organization from future embargo offers and pre-briefings. But I don’t see that happening any more. TechCrunch, in particular, breaks embargoes with total impunity. Like codependent spouses, companies and their PR reps always seem to rationalize away the breach and go back to Arrington’s crew with the next confidential story.
You can’t fix the embargo system with more embargoes. It’s time—for me, at least—to walk away from the whole bankrupt system.
What would I like to see in place of embargoes? I recognize that companies sometimes have real news to share (though it’s rarely as earthshaking as they seem to think) and that they’d like to see this news covered as widely as possible. Well, there are several tried-and-true methods for spreading news that don’t hinge on promises of secrecy and threats of retribution. They’re all simple variants on “if you build it, they will come.”
1. Don’t pre-brief anyone. Just post the news on your blog.
2. E-mail the announcement to reporters at the same time. (Be sure to put something like “For immediate release” in the subject line.)
3. Tweet it (assuming you have lots of followers; if you don’t, get someone who does to tweet it).
4. Hold a press event. (It’s hard for anyone on a lesser plane than Apple or Google to pull this one off, since reporters usually want to know what an event is going to be about before they commit to attend, and that brings you right back to the embargo problem.)
5. Put an announcement on one of the PR wire services.
Or use some combination of the above techniques. They’re all far better than the alternative, since it’s clear that if you embargo it, they will break it.
Or here’s a truly radical suggestion: Stop worrying so much about making “news” and just cultivate relationships with individual reporters like me. Invite me in for a meeting. Demo your product. Take me on a tour of your office or plant. Schedule a phone call just to catch up. Be available as an outside source for stories that aren’t about your company.
The truth is that I don’t really care about your quarterly earnings, your sales momentum, or why version 3.0 of your software is so much better than version 2.5. But if you let me get to know you and your company at my own pace, I’ll be able to figure out what’s important for my audience. And that way, if I end up telling a story about your company, it will be much more authentic and interesting. Which should please everyone—including your future customers.