We’re Done With Embargoes

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 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.


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riverlaw
Member
riverlaw
March 31, 2011 1:35 AM

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.

J. Major
Member
March 31, 2011 2:02 AM

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!

The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
Member
The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
March 31, 2011 2:20 AM
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… Read more »
Nancy Atkinson
Admin
March 31, 2011 11:43 AM

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
Member
wjwbudro
March 31, 2011 1:50 PM

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
Member
wjwbudro
March 31, 2011 1:58 PM

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

Nancy Atkinson
Admin
March 31, 2011 2:22 PM

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
Member
wjwbudro
March 31, 2011 3:03 PM

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

The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
Member
The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
March 31, 2011 2:23 AM

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

The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
Member
The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
March 31, 2011 2:23 AM

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

Hlafordlaes
Member
Hlafordlaes
March 31, 2011 2:28 AM

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

Moonshine
Member
Moonshine
March 31, 2011 6:57 AM

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

Nafin
Member
Nafin
March 31, 2011 8:30 AM

Insert applause for mench-y-ness here

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
March 31, 2011 8:47 AM
+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… Read more »
platomica
Member
platomica
March 31, 2011 11:58 AM

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. wink

Johnny Velocity
Member
Johnny Velocity
March 31, 2011 12:31 PM

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.

tareece
Member
tareece
March 31, 2011 12:38 PM
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… Read more »
Mike Clark
Member
Mike Clark
March 31, 2011 1:31 PM

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!

tareece
Member
tareece
March 31, 2011 1:48 PM
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… Read more »
Mr Mike
Guest
Mr Mike
March 31, 2011 2:41 PM
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… Read more »
Ron1
Member
Ron1
March 31, 2011 2:18 PM

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

mastercope
Member
mastercope
March 31, 2011 2:28 PM

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.

gopher65
Member
gopher65
March 31, 2011 3:08 PM

Good for you Frasersmile. 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.

tareece
Member
tareece
March 31, 2011 4:31 PM

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.

shrank
Member
shrank
March 31, 2011 5:13 PM

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

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