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 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.