We’re Done With Embargoes

Published: 31 Mar , 2011
by

Here’s the short version: Universe Today will no longer participate in news story embargoes. If you have news, we’ll get working on it after it’s public knowledge.

And here’s the long version:

Many of you readers will have no idea what I’m talking about here, so a little preamble is in order. In the science news-o-sphere, many of the stories we report on are run through an embargo process. The space agencies, journals and universities will give us advanced notice of a story they’re planning to announce. They give us a few hours – or even days – to get our stories in order, interview researchers, find contrasting opinions, write it up, get it polished. And then at the stroke of midnight (or whatever time they appoint), we all publish our news at the same moment.

Have you ever noticed that a big astronomy news story just appears from nowhere and then suddenly it’s everywhere? That’s because we all knew about it for several days, but were sworn to secrecy.

In order to learn the news, you have to uphold the embargo. You have to hold your story until the appointed time, and then you can go public with it. And if you break embargo – announce the story before the release date/time – you’re cast out of the inner circle and don’t receive the news any more.

In a perfect world, an embargo is a helpful tool to give journalists an even playing field. It lets them work at their own pace, speaking to researchers ahead of time, before the story goes big and everyone’s too busy to talk. It suppresses churnalism, where busy writers just copy-paste press releases verbatim.

But here’s what I hate about them.

Embargoes let the public relations officials decide who’s a journalist and who isn’t. It lets them control who gets secret advanced knowledge of news stories, and who doesn’t. It stacks the deck against bloggers, science fiction reporters, twitterers, and anyone who wants to report interesting stories on science.

The embargo system is broken, designed for a time when print reporters needed the lead time to get their stories prepared. It needs to catch up to the internet age, and evolve (or probably just disappear). Everybody agrees that it needs to be restructured, but nobody knows what to do about it. And the biggest source of news in our industry, NASA, never uses embargoes. They just announce their news – or announce an upcoming press conference. Some people poorly speculate on what NASA is going to announce, but everyone knows something’s coming, and they all discover what it is at the same moment.

When we started Universe Today, nobody took us seriously. We were declined access to embargoed news stories because we didn’t have enoughโ€ฆ whatever. Readers? Mojo? A press officers looked at our site, decided it didn’t have that secret sauce and so they turned us down – no advanced knowledge for you!

Universe Today just passed the 4 million monthly pageview mark, we have 60,000 ish RSS subscribers. Getting in on embargo lists is easy now, nobody turns us down. But I don’t want other people starting out to have to go through what we went through.

Here’s our new policy on embargoes. If you have a story to tell the world, announce it publicly somewhere: on your website, by email, through a twitter feed, call us on the phone, whatever. There are so many ways to get the story out, and have it amplified beyond your wildest imagination. We’ll pick up the story and run with it, or not.

But if you give us a news release with an embargo, we’re not going to spring into action. We’re going to wait until you’ve announced it publicly on the internet before we decide if we going to cover it, and how we’re going to cover it. We’re not going to access password protected journal pages, or participate in insider conference calls. If you have a news scoop, we’re going to ask you if we can report on this right now, and if we can’t, we’re going to ask you to call back later.

Just to be clear, Universe Today isn’t going to be breaking embargoes, we’re just not going to be participating in them any more.

Our competitors online, print, television and radio will have an advantage on us, since they’ll have hours or days of advanced notice, and will be able to report within seconds of each other.

Obviously, I’d prefer it was an even playing field, but I want it to be an even playing field for everyone.

How will this affect readers? We’re just going to need to work harder and better to make sure coverage on Universe Today equals the quality of any news agency with access to the embargoed material. We might be a few hours later reporting on stories, but I’ll bet you won’t even notice.


37 Responses

  1. riverlaw says:

    Cool. Also, it can help your stories too. Seeing what others reports say and the reaction to them and incorporating that into the coverage would be fine. Or whatever. I’ll be reading here.

  2. J. Major says:

    Good for you. I doubt it will hurt your readership or reputation. Both are outstanding, and anyone worth a hoot knows it.

    I never imagined that it was even like that in the science reporting field!

  3. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    At least the news will be earlier than in the astronomy magazines like S&T. I see that many of these articles here are general anyway, so it makes no difference having embargoes or not.
    I admit that I generally look at other site like ScienceDaily etc to get the “heads-up” . and then compare what is has already said in Universe Today. Most of the time, UT is ahead of the rest of the pack — by hours or even days. By dumping the embargo you will lose this advantage, however, it might make the article comments more relevant.
    Better advice (IMO) would be again look at your audience and what information they find most useful. I think you need more authors like Tammy who writes on astronomical objects, what we know of them and how to observing it. I think you find that the educational-like stories will help in the comprehension of the actual news stories. You should also expand your concepts like “Carnival in Space” and have occasional invitations by experienced authors to contribute to general stories. (Lawrence B. Crowell on cosmology subjects.)
    As for you site, I would also increase the number of “Recent Comments” in the right-hand column from 5 to 15 or so. There is quite enough room (almost to the bottom of the page) to easily accommodate this. This would aid in discussion across multiple stories, which will be likely more important with your new non-embargo policy.
    As a final comment. I notice that many of the stories are often released at around the same time (late evening in the US, I think.) [I know, because I often see the stories in the morning, and often are the first to comment.] You might like to consider releasing stories throughout the day instead of all in one go.

    • Articles usually ARE published throughout the day,but if you get the daily email newsletter, the day’s stories are all listed in one bunch.

      • wjwbudro says:

        My e-mail alerts from UT arrive up to 12 hours after you publish them, generally arriving between 1 and 3 am US EST. I use g-mail and I do not seem to have a problem with delays from other senders. I have contacted UT in the past about this and have yet to receive a reply.

      • wjwbudro says:

        I should have said after you publish the stories on site.

      • You’re right — that is the time when the daily email is sent out — we just do one email a day for the day’s stories. If you want to get notification of articles immediately as they come out, use the RSS feed. Set it up with a Google reader or other feed readers.

      • wjwbudro says:

        Thanks Nancy, I now just go to your site home page to be current.

  4. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Could we have enforce a permanent embargo on Electric Universe / Plasma Cosmology (EU/PC)? Might make the stories and comments more enjoyable!

  5. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Correction: Could we have enforced a permanent embargo on Electric Universe / Plasma Cosmology (EU/PC)? Might make the stories and comments more enjoyable!

  6. Hlafordlaes says:

    I confess it was not an issue I was very mindful of, but listening to your explanation, I applaud the choice of policy.

  7. Moonshine says:

    To the Crew of UT, I always look forward too your stories and send you a thumbs-up!
    You folks are the BEST…

  8. Nafin says:

    Insert applause for mench-y-ness here

  9. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    +1.

    Seriously, it makes sense with or without the change in press media. (Or at least after the lead times stopped to be counted in press days.)

    We have much churnalism anyway, and the way to beat that is the market choosing the more in depth and/or wider coverage when it is affordable. It may be that the over all quality as presented to the public is lowered, but you will hopefully see some “peak efforts” as is the UT standard.

    Also, it should work both ways. Today journalists tend to explain and/or context embed press releases in many outlets. Ideally without embargo there will be more market pressure going through to the universities, organizations and companies that do the releases in the first place. They will still be sensationalist and claim inflated, likely even more so. But at least they should become more readable and self contained.

    “Even play field” is also (not foremost) another word in most fields for “unnecessary crutch” and “let’s keep this lazy, shall we; who pays the drinks next round?”. (But I would hate for you guys to become too separated from the social context of media departments, not for access to back rubs but for sharing work concerns et cetera. Now it will be up to each individual involved to be more active.)

  10. platomica says:

    absolutely the way to go. i read UT for the general quality of articles published here, not for a couple of hours advantage in knowing the newest about space science. i’m sure if the marsians should decide to take over earth again, i’d read it in my local newspaper first – or never. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Johnny Velocity says:

    Way to go UT! I’m 100% behind your decision! I’ve been a subscriber for a long time and I hope to continue for an even longer time. Best of luck on this.

  12. tareece says:

    Frasier,
    I’ve been a longtime subscriber and I’ve enjoyed the UT ever since I stumbled onto it. You and your cohorts have grown your lil’ hobby into a full fledged journalistic entity and that accomplishment deserves praise and loud Huzzah’s!
    A move like this, I am sure, took several series of long discussions and much late night whale oil to arrive at this conclusion.
    While I appreciate your protective stance for the ‘lil’ guy, and hope your commitment NOT to break an embargo is seen by the story sources as iron clad, my wish is for UT to remain vital, fresh and relevant in the niche you have found yourselves….
    If you think the system of news distribution is broke, it makes sense not to participate in it.
    The unspoken question is, “How does this change benefit UT?”
    Potentially, news might come harder as competition might voice complaints about possible “scoop-a-gates” where they only have your word not to prepublish a news item.
    I just hope you don’t fall on your sword through an gracious act of nobility.
    Keep up the fine work, I’m sure I’m just a worrywart.

  13. Fraser Cain says:

    I wouldn’t take this stand if I thought it was impossible to compensate for not being part of the embargo process. I’m absolutely certain that the embargo system is a relic of a past era and will eventually disappear when people realize it’s impossible to define what a journalist is – you know journalism when you see it.

    I’m planting our flag in the future, and learning how to provide great news without relying on the embargo crutch. When the embargos finally do fall, we’ll have already been working this way for years. It’ll be our competitive advantage.

  14. Mike Clark says:

    I’d hate to think that this would hurt your site in any way….

    but I think its much better that you stand by what you think is ethically and/or professionally the right thing to do!

  15. tareece says:

    I appreciate your quick clarification Fraser. You’re wanting to be ahead of whatever curve you see and being ignorant of your business I’ll defer to your expertise.
    Frankly, I’m torn between wondering why the heck there is a embargo system in the age of twitter, and knowing full well that there is a “hierarchy” of “respected media sources” that are beyond fearful of the New Media and are out to protect “their” territory from those that they see as inferior or less professional than they.

    I fully support the New Media and know that one has to balance an weed out the loons from the pro’s. No different than realizing that print media also has divisions such as the National Enquirer and what passes as the NYT today.
    Shoot for the moon young Fras. Even if you fall short you’ll land among the stars…
    meh, corny, yet filling.

    • Mr Mike says:

      One initial reason for enacting the embargo system was to help police insider trading by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission USA). This is mostly applicable to the biotech field where cutting edge “news” can cause stock to float up / down as a response to the “news”. This is a meaningless effort, as all can see, on the part of SEC, since there is now an enforced waiting time there is more time to effect a profit slowly, with less detection (even if detestably done). This makes the “solution” a part of the problem as I see it.

      The premise: if a stock is damaged as a result of breaking the embargo then sure “the embargo did right”, the system will have punished insider trading by preventing that journalist from ever again (yeah, right) working the system to their (or others they are in the pay of) advantage. It might even allow a path of accountability to ruin a career in the making or dash to the ground an established personage fallen on hard times and in the clutches of the evil insider trading conspiracy — but how does it provide for and ensure a level field much less prevent and enforce what the SEC requires of the news industry.

      Morality and ethics can not be placed into existence via laws and regulations which can only punish after the fact. This solution lacks grace and has no elegance, no zest or capacity to overwhelm the potential “Rule Breaker” into not breaking the rule. It sets itself up as something to be worked around and avoided.

      Only when persons are held completely accountable will complete corporate accountability exist. Availing oneself of the protection of a legal fiction, a “real” person in the eyes of the law, separate from those of us who are living, is a method currently used to “skirt’ the personal (and personnel) minefield of legal consequences –holding no officer, no board member, accountable for the actions of the corporation as a whole. Therein lies the solution since therein is the problem.

      Mike C

  16. Ron1 says:

    In the end, I come to Universe Today because I trust the information presented – period!

  17. mastercope says:

    I am sure the vast majority of the People who read these articles will not even notice the delay. who really sits at there monitor and waits for a story to hit the net. maybe some maybe a few more than some the point is the quality of the reporting as opposed to the drama of being first, who cares keep up the good work and you will always have a following. This is your site it works and works well for me. Love you people.

  18. gopher65 says:

    Good for you Fraser:). Over at Wikinews embargoes have been a small but continuous pain in the butt, even though we didn’t have the problem with them that bloggers, etc had. We haven’t actively participated in the embargo process for quite some time now, due to the stupidity of it.

  19. tareece says:

    Well gopher mentions the stupidity of it, and my previous post about the ‘age of twitter’ kind of sums up what a crock the ‘hierarchy’ is as the try to sequester and choose the news that’s fit to print AND who prints it.

    I applaud your effort and hope to see sources use twitter and other ‘instant’ dispersal techniques to disseminate their stories instead of relying on old media.

  20. shrank says:

    Wonderful!! Way to go. I really applaud your independence and integrity.

  21. Jon says:

    I love your site, and wish you the best of luck.

  22. Aristotlejones says:

    Finally, someone who values the compass more than the clock!

    This morning I explained for the third time to a client that there is no such thing as an “exact estimate”. I finally told him flat out that he’s going to have to choose between asking me to focus on the quality of work or on the ticking of the clock.

    Oops, gottago. There’s his email probably firing me.

  23. RUF says:

    Sounds good. Best of luck — I hope all goes well. UT is an great thing. I rely on it to stay informed and up with the latest.

    RUF

  24. tnetcenter says:

    How about labeling the embargo stories as such? They won’t be able to stand up to the light for long if it’s shining in their faces. We the readers will know immediately what the status of a particular “news” item is.

  25. lars says:

    Jolly Good !!!

    There’s no need to hurry, an hour or two, or a day or two, later from ‘the in crowd’ makes no difference to me.

    It’s the quality of the story !, that’s the thing which really counts !

  26. HeadAroundU says:

    You have my support, do whatever must be done.

  27. bugz says:

    I’ve enjoyed this site for years and it’s my primary source for space news, so it’s just the same to me.

  28. Spacemad says:

    I’m also happy to “follow” UT as I have done for many years now. It’s not critical for me either to have all the stories as soon as possible. I rely greatly on UT for a lot of my space related news. To feed my voracious appetite for space news! ๐Ÿ™‚

  29. mcsejung says:

    Marking news items as “EMBARGOED NEWS ITEM” is what all freedom loving Americans (and/or earthlings) should support.

    Doesn’t that sound like something on the order of a violation of the first amendment?

    P. S. If you are not an earthling, please give us your name, address, and phone number.

  30. Haplo says:

    Well, I’m sure we’ll all find out if a nearby star goes nova despite whatever ridiculous policies your news suppliers have ๐Ÿ™‚

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