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Embargo RIP

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One of my colleagues in the US flagged up that the Wall Street Journal was abandoning embargoes apart from exceptional circumstances and the journalists will be refocused on how much ‘breaking news’ that they can uncover and publish.

What is an embargo? For most people outside the PR and media industries they will be scratching their head wondering what this all means. An embargo is a gentleman’s agreement where by the media is provided with advance information in return for them agreeing not to publish it until a set time and date. Multiple publications may agree to an embargo.  If one publication breaks an embargo then the others feel free to publish it.

Historically it has been like a giant game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where media could gain tactical one-upmanship by breaking the embargo but they lose the opportunity to build depth into a story and check out the angles, perhaps even getting . There was also a risk that the offending publication may not get access to content from that company or the PR agency who works for them. In reality blackballing journalists or publication is a threat that is sufficiently rarely used to be news in its own right.

This game has been changed because the news cycle has sped up with the internet. Traditional media brands go head to head on an equal footing with specialist industry brands like CNET or media brands which never even existed a few years ago. The celebrity blogger Perez Hilton has become a media brand in his own right and is as recognisable today as newspaper magnate William Randoph Hearst was a century before.

This has created an arms race for breaking news amongst publications and changed the rules for PR people. It means that there are less opportunities to influence analysis pieces through assisting with fact checking and providing the bread crumb trail to a story that they would like told.

Investigative journalism a la Seymour Hersh or Woodward and Bernstein is likely to be discouraged. The role of the fourth estate as a crucial part of a country’s checks-and-balances is under threat. Corporate communications and reputation management parts of public relations will become much more reactive in nature. PRs will have less options to use in order to counter potential journalistic issues and means that legal measures will play a more important part in the news cycle.

There will be a clash between the legal and journalistic obligations for fact checking and providing the relevant party the opportunity to comment. Journalist / PR relations are likely to move from being relatively congenial to a more adversarial stance.

I am not convinced that this will be a good move for the news media industry. If you are  purely focused on getting the news out fast there is less differentiation between brands; the brands won’t have the same level of authority as they will be providing what is essentially a commodity product which many other suppliers provide for free. This is emphasised by the way that Google News presents news side-by-side from thousands of news sources.

Bill Grueskin a former editor of the Wall Street Journal’s recent comments on the nature of the news business reinforced a view that I have that it would be very hard for media like the Wall Street Journal to make money on breaking news without a value-added wrapper of some sort. It will be interesting to see whether the news media industry creates this successful  wrapper.

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