Embargo Is Latin for “F*** You”


A couple of weeks ago I took part in a discussion about press embargoes, with Tom Foremski, Damon Darlin and Mark Glaser, skillfully moderated by Sam Whitmore. Also in the audience, and contributing worthy comments, were Rafe Needleman, Paul Boutin, and other members of the press and PR corps.

I kicked things off (and got a cheap laugh) with the comment that I thought the word “embargo” derived from a Latin phrase meaning “Fuck you.” It was a joke, but I meant it, in a way: I don’t like embargoes, and when I agree to one it’s because I realize the value of the news to my readers outweighs the value of the independence I would retain by saying no. In other words, the PR person has me over a barrel, and she knows it. If I want the news, I have to agree to the terms — terms which include tying my hands.

What’s more annoying, I’ve had several cases recently at Wired.com where we were put at a serious disadvantage by embargoes that we’d agreed to, in good faith. Either through machinations by the PR firm, cluelessness on the part of their clients, or ruthlessness on the part of other journalists, the news got leaked — early — by other news outlets, leaving Wired high and dry. This has happened more in the past year than in the whole previous decade, leading me to think that yes, there is something of a crisis here.

It’s this awkwardness, bad faith, and outright attempt to control the press that makes many journalists, including Glaser, feel that we should just refuse to accept embargoes. Indeed, some news outlets, if they have enough clout, can get away with this as a general policy: the Wall Street Journal is the shining example.

But most news outlets aren’t in that position, and most journalists aren’t likely to be able to refuse embargoes long for a simple reason: In product-driven journalism and indeed in much business journalism, PR people hold most of the cards, during the news announcement cycle anyway. (Product reviews, analyses and more scoopy stories are a different matter.) If you want the news, there’s only one source: The company that’s making it.

Besides, as I asked that night, what journalist would ever refuse an exclusive? What about an exclusive offered only to you, the New York Times, and the WSJ? What about an exclusive offered to you and just 25 other news outlets? In the last case, it’s not totally exclusive, but the news is still worth something — and it’s something that hundreds of other journalists and bloggers don’t have. So in other words, the embargo is on a continuum with exclusives, making it unavoidable.

This even though embargoed stories are almost never our biggest ones. The big stories — those that garner huge pageviews — are almost always the ones where we’ve done original reporting, broken a new story on our own, provided unique analysis, or delivered perspectives you couldn’t get elsewhere. But the embargoed stories are the ones the readers (and the boss) would miss, if you didn’t cover them, so you have to cover them, even if you know they’re not likely to be hits.

That said, I recognize that embargoes are a fact of life in my field and I take a pragmatic, and I hope honorable, approach to them. My rules are simple:

  • If I agree to an embargo, it has to have a specific expiration date and time (with the time zone specified).
  • Once I agree to an embargo, I will honor its terms.
  • If a few details are leaked by other sources, I will report on those leaks without recourse to the embargoed information I may hold.
  • But if the whole story breaks early somewhere else, it’s fair game: The embargo is off.
  • And if the PR person values their relationship with me and with Wired, they will call me as soon as possible to let me know that the news has broken and that I’m free of the embargo.

Also, and this bears repeating: It comes down to trust. I think the reason that embargoes have gotten such a bad rap in the past year or two is that both journalists and PR people are struggling with massive upheavals in the way news is published and distributed. There’s a lot of turnover. Everyone is overworked. As a result, there are fewer of the personal, human-to-human connections between flacks and hacks that used to make the embargo system (and indeed, the whole PR-press relationship) work. So mistakes get made, either by naive or unprincipled journalists, or by new and untrained PR people, or by either one, when someone figures that the value of the news opportunity exceeds the value of the (nonexistent) relationship.

So really, I’m much more likely to agree to an embargo if I know you and have worked with you before and I trust you. And likewise, you’re much more likely to offer me an embargo if you know and trust me.

More coverage of the embargo panel (the stories I could find, anyway):

Internetnews.com: Tech Reporters Talk Tough (David Needle)

Bay Newser: Hacks and Flacks Talks Embargoes (E.B. Boyd of MediaBistro)

To Embargo or Not to Embargo (Bobbie Peyton, Burson-Marsteller)

Persuasive Marketing: Is It Time to Place an Embargo on PR Embargoes? (Robert Mullins)

The Future of the Embargo (Brian Solis)

The Death of the Embargo: We Won’t Care (Stowe Boyd)

And it looks like Waggener-Edstrom, which hosted the event, has posted video of the Embargo 2010 discussion. It’s about an hour long.

Also, see my earlier post: Journalism and PR in the new media age.

Embargo Is Latin for “F*** You”

Why I’m Not Getting a Droid Today

I’ve been testing the Verizon Droid for the past few days, and it’s an awesome phone.

But even though I’m eager to ditch my iPhone and eighty-six AT&T, I’m not going to switch to Verizon for the Droid.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very impressed with what Motorola has built. In my mind, the Droid and the iPhone are the two best smartphones on the market today. The Droid can compete with the iPhone in almost every respect.

In some features, such as the screen, it comes out way ahead: The Droid’s vivid, high-resolution 854 x 440 pixel display blows away the iPhone’s 480 x 320 screen. It’s simply crisper, clearer, and easier to read. (Note: The photo above does not do it justice.)

Voice-call quality is much better than on the iPhone. Callers sounded crisp and clear. And I was able to set up Google Voice to work with both incoming and outgoing calls and SMS messages — something you cannot do with the iPhone.

For that matter, since all of my contacts, calendars and e-mails are hosted by Google now, setting up the Droid to work with my information took me less than five minutes. Because I have more than 3,000 contacts it took the Droid nearly an hour to sync them all to the phone over the 3G network (and during that time, the phone got alarmingly warm), but I never had to install desktop software or even plug in any cables.

It was hands-down the easiest and fastest setup process of any phone I’ve used, and when it was done, the phone had everything I needed. (By contrast, getting the iPhone to sync with Google was a tricky and time-consuming process — and you need to install iTunes and connect your iPhone to your computer by USB in any event.)

The Droid also uses Verizon’s 3G network, which in my ad hoc testing came out ahead of AT&T’s. Downloads seemed faster, and the data connections were generally more reliable. It still dropped one of my calls, as I was riding the commuter train, in almost exactly the same spot where AT&T inevitably drops my iPhone calls. Without further side-by-side testing I can’t definitively state whether the Droid on Verizon’s network trumps the iPhone on AT&T’s, but my sense is that it generally does.

In terms of interface and features, the Droid is the first phone that’s truly comparable to the iPhone in terms of power and ease of use. There are interface differences, but for the most part they’re not better or worse, just different.

Multitouch is the most glaring omission, which means you can’t pinch to zoom the screen. But, like the iPhone, you can double-tap to zoom in, and the Droid is similarly smart about sizing the screen to fit whatever column of text you want to read.

Its onscreen keyboard works almost exactly like the iPhone’s, and is even superior in that you can choose among multiple type-ahead suggestions rather than just waiting for the phone to suggest the one you really want.

And while there are only about 10,000 Android apps, compared with the iPhone’s 100,000, there seems to be plenty of selection. The Android Market should be more than enough to keep me happy, with a couple of exceptions.

The reason I’m not switching to the Droid is twofold. First, the hardware keyboard troubles me. It’s not especially good, and I worry that the slide-out mechanism could be prone to failure. There’s no way to confirm that other than heavy use for three to six months, but it’s a risk I’m not quite ready to take — especially because the onscreen, virtual keyboard is so good.

With such a good virtual keyboard, the hardware keyboard seems like an unnecessary and even dangerous, trouble-prone appendage, like an appendix or a vestigial tail: It can only cause problems.

Plus, it adds weight; the Droid, at 6 ounces, is about 2 ounces heavier than the iPhone. So I’d rather wait for a lighter, keyboard-less version of the Droid.

The second big reason is that I’ve grown dependent on two iPhone apps: Instapaper Pro and Tweetie. I also occasionally use RunKeeper, Stanza, Pandora and a handful of games, but Instapaper and Tweetie are the killer apps. They’re the things that, together with e-mail capability, make the iPhone useful to me.

Tweetie I could probably learn to live without: There are plenty of Twitter apps for Android, and the most popular one, Twidroid, seems to work fine, even if it lacks Tweetie’s elegance and speed. But Instapaper’s ability to collect, reformat and display news articles and blog posts I want to read — even if I’m offline — has made it an indispensable commuter and downtime companion. I would sorely miss it.

So while I’m no fan of AT&T or Apple, I’ll be sticking with the iPhone now. It’s one of the two best smartphones on the market, and it’s the only one that has the apps I depend on.

Originally published on Wired.com

Why I’m Not Getting a Droid Today