We’re Done With Embargoes

by Fraser Cain on March 31, 2011

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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 enough… 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.

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

Jon March 31, 2011 at 5:38 PM

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

Aristotlejones March 31, 2011 at 5:55 PM

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.

RUF March 31, 2011 at 8:38 PM

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

tnetcenter March 31, 2011 at 8:47 PM

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.

Fraser Cain March 31, 2011 at 10:53 PM

Interesting idea, I like that a lot.

lars April 1, 2011 at 6:21 AM

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 !

HeadAroundU April 1, 2011 at 12:02 PM

You have my support, do whatever must be done.

bugz April 3, 2011 at 2:01 AM

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

Spacemad April 4, 2011 at 5:51 PM

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! :-)

mcsejung April 5, 2011 at 2:36 PM

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.

Haplo April 10, 2011 at 5:29 AM

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

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