Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has decided to no longer accept news embargos (where news is given to a media outlet early but they can’t write about it until a certain date/time).  He says…

A lot of this news is good stuff that our readers want to know about. And we have the benefit of taking some time during the pre-briefing to think about the story, do research, and write it properly. When embargoes go right, we get to write a thoughtful story which benefits the company and our readers.

But there’s a problem. All this stress on the PR firms put on them by desperate clients means they send out the embargoed news to literally everyone who writes tech news stories. Any blog or major media site, no matter how small or new, gets the email. It didn’t used to be this way, but it’s becoming more and more of a problem. As the economy turns south, PR firms are under increasing pressure to perform and justify their monthly retainers which range from $10,000 to $30,000 or more. In short, they have to spam the tech world to get coverage, or lose their jobs.

Now obviously I think this is a bad thing.  An embargo, when used properly, exists for a reason.  It allows reporters to publish more than a knee jerk reaction to news.  They get to (a) reflect on the news and (b) research unclear parts of the news to create something of greater quality.  This leads to better news stories which in turn leads to a readership that is better informed and less frustrated because they receive higher quality content. 

Bottom Line: Embargo = Good

So the question then becomes “Why are we losing this good thing?”  To me this boils down to one issue and that is a lack of standards.  In the past there were newspapers with editors and if a reporter broke an embargo he would be fired by that editor.  Because the institution had some integrity and because, even if they didn’t consciously know it, they realized that a society without rules is a bad thing. 

But now you get the modern day equivalent of those newspaper editors breaking the rules they once upheld just to stay in the game.  Which is the result of PR firms treating a few no-name jerks the same way they treat actual established web publications. 

This comes back to a theme I’ve tried to cover often which is the idea that “just because technology allows you to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it”.  Technology indiscriminately removes “barriers to entry” but that doesn’t by default make it the right thing to do.  Just because some guy can put up a blog that looks just like Techcrunch doesn’t mean he should be treated in the same way. 

Because he might turn out to be a jerk who breaks the rules because he just doesn’t care.

Which is exactly why some barriers to entry are good and why it’s the job of responsible people in society to recognize those good barriers and artificially enforce them even when technology seems to render them moot.  Had PR firms realized an embargo is for their benefit and only sent breaking news to respectable web publications they wouldn’t find themselves without it now.  But they didn’t and because of that they, and society as a whole, are worse off.