How PR embargoes killed news

I don't know what happens to journalists who habitually break news embargoes but I'm pretty sure it's bad, writes John E Dunn of Computerworld UK/Techworld.

Embargoes still look like cleverly-targeted drone strikes but they are being dropped on an empty battlefield, writes John E Dunn
Embargoes still look like cleverly-targeted drone strikes but they are being dropped on an empty battlefield, writes John E Dunn
I’ve only done it once myself, by accident as it happens because I’m well-behaved, or I like to think I am. 

I picked up the phone to be told that a story wasn’t meant to "come off embargo" for another 12 hours. I felt stupid on two levels, firstly for making an elementary mistake that landed PR contacts in hot water but also for giving a damn at all.

How did we end up in a world where writing about a company’s products and services in a generally positive and informative way before a designated moment in time became a sign of journalistic incompetence?

It's hard to believe but not that long ago it would have been extraordinary to let PRs and companies dictate when a story was published.

For UK tech writers, embargoes first crept in as an occasional thing around 2005, usually set by big and important firms like Microsoft. 

It was like the information equivalent of a drone strike.

One and two-page nuggets of corporate information were fired at email addresses with terse descriptions of said news, anodyne pull quotes and warnings about publication dates and times, always specified to US offsets in case we stupidly thought that GMT or BST mattered any more.

Clue number one, Eastern Time, otherwise known as ‘-5 hours ET’ to make it sound more bureaucratically imposing. 

It was those Americans again. Ever the Orwellian information innovators, they’d come up with a new way to manage the hell out of everything in case the information ran out of control and people started writing stuff like they did in the old days, which is to say by finding it out for themselves.

Embargoes weren’t such a big deal at first, though I recall the news editor of the time sent round a group email suggesting we either ignore tech firms using embargoes or just refuse to write about them, period. It was a trend and clearly, at that time, an alien one.

But like the frog that doesn’t notice it’s being boiled to death in a pan of warming water, journalists got used to the demands and as the number of embargoes and news stories rose, forgot it was a problem at all. 

Soon every firm was doing it for every story. Newer scribes had never known anything different. It was just the way things were.

The generals or PRs liked what they saw – dozens of journalists covering the same news story in the same few hours, on the same day. 

The sense of power was palpable. They send us the stuff and we print it to fit in with the global release cycle so beloved of powerful tech firm marketing departments that want complete control over everything including human agency.

If as a PR professional this sounds like a perfect world, recent events might give you pause for thought. 
Take a glance at UK and US tech titles and you might have noticed something rather worrying going on. 

They are no longer writing news stories that need press releases or their embargoes.

In the search for readers, they are abandoning managed news in favour of what publishers call ‘long tail’ features, that is stories that can grab smaller amounts of traffic from defined geographies (i.e. the UK) over a long period of time. You can’t embargo those.

Some of this is driven by the rise of search engines and an explosion of magazines covering tech but the world of embargo-driven news is another culprit. 

By compelling journalists to write the same story in the same few hours, the embargo has killed distinctiveness and competitive difference. 

Some call this churnalism but the end result is that news traffic is no longer enough to sustain many magazines.

I still get daily emails from tech PRs that sternly remind me of some new embargo or other even though, for a growing number of journalists, they are irrelevant. 

I will never break a PR embargo because I will never write that story in the first place. 

Embargoes still look like cleverly targeted drone strikes but they are being dropped on an empty battlefield.

John E Dunn is the security editor at Techworld/Computerworld UK

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