The Inlander/March 2011
Press advisories addressing these topics and others have likely crossed most editors’ desks.
An individual is ready to publicize his candidacy for elective office. A developer is poised to announce a major project for the downtown. The co-chairs for a new arena schedule the official fundraising kickoff.
Each event has scheduled a press conference. And the “news” is embargoed until then.
Sorry, but these announcements are news the minute the advisories/press releases are distributed. Newsrooms should politely decline to honor embargoes and press forward with delivering the stories in timely and complete fashion to readers.
Such a policy may not sit well with the newsmakers, and editors should be proactive in explaining their resistance to sit on stories. Newsrooms should disregard embargoes in most cases – there always are exceptions – for some basic reasons. The most important element is that newspapers want to represent themselves as the premier source for community news.
For starters – not to deflate the candidate, or the developer, or the campaign co-chairs – but the news likely is already circulating the community. That means newsrooms, if they are doing their jobs, are aware of any pending announcements. Newspapers pride themselves on being a clearinghouse of information for items “on the record” as well as “off the record.”
Remember, the newsroom family – from news and advertising staffs to business and distribution departments – is likely a microcosm of a community. The collective eyes and ears have a pulse of the community. More often than not, reporters will be calling City Hall about the major downtown development well before the press release arrives.
Long gone are the days when newspapers were the sole portal for community news. The web has allowed everyone from community bloggers to citizen journalists to be a source for local information. Bottom line, newspapers must be aggressive if they want to keep the edge as the pre-eminent source of news. Maintaining their relevance is at the foundation of building revenues through circulation and advertising sales.
Every policy has its exceptions. For example, newspapers in good conscience can make strong arguments for honoring embargoes on statewide education testing. The release covers many news jurisdictions and likely requires some detailed analysis of data to produce stories that are understandable and relevant to readers.
Most important, adhering to embargoes can subject newspapers to community scrutiny and undermine their credibility. Readers may perceive that the newspaper is sitting on a story to satisfy the motives of a particular source. That’s especially the case if the news is likely to be viewed as unwelcome. Consider the downsizing of a major manufacturer, the closing of a school or the resignation of a public official under fire.
Newspapers are expected to print the whole story – all perspectives including the good and the bad. That should be the goal regardless of whether the news is released on a source’s terms or when a reporter first catches wind of a story. A well-rounded and balanced story is solid journalism and provides the broadest service to readers.
Most important for all concerned – reporters and news sources alike – is that everyone has a common understanding about the request to honor an embargo. In most newsrooms, the editor will have the final say. Embargoes should be an agreement with the newspaper, not just with a reporter.