We’re Done With Embargoes

by Fraser Cain on March 31, 2011

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.


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

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