Thursday, May 8, 2008

Embargoes in danger

How long can the system of embargoed media stories survive the internet?

My question is provoked by the publication of the Commons health select committee's report on last year's junior doctor training fiasco. As expected the report did not spare individuals or organisation in its robust condemnation of what happened.

The report was embargoed until one minute past midnight today and we went to some lengths to get reports ready for publication on at the crack of midnight.

Why did we bother waiting up? At 11.30pm on Wednesday a link to the report was posted on a DNUK discussion forum. That meant the committee had broken its own embargo - because of course it would rely on IT technicians to ensure the full report popped up at the correct time.

No matter because the on-line version of The Times carried the story at 9pm on the Wednesday, breaking the embargo with three hours to spare.

This is now a regular occurrence. Embargoes are particularly important in medical journalism because details of most medical journals are released in advance of publication of the journal. The Lancet and the British Medical Journal appear at one minute past midnight every Friday for instance. Except that the embargoes are routinely broken, without punishment, by on-line versions of the newspapers which appear on the web before midnight.

The newspapers should take care as it is embargoes that help them give their print editions an appearance of being fresh. You can release a story at 5pm and the chances are it will not make it into print the next day unless it is a major breaking story. It would be no problem for our service nor for many bloggers. The broadcast media might not be happy because they like time to compile interviews.

Having come from the world of newspapers we understand embargoes and observe them. It is to our advantage to do so - yet we would also benefit from fewer of them. We frequently report interesting health stories before they filter into the mainstream media!

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