Monday
Aug252014

Quality or Control? Pros and Cons of The Press Embargo

 

The press embargo. Used extensively in consumer journalism to ensure articles about a particular product, person, company or topic are not published until a specific date and time.

The idea was created to suit magazine publishers, who would need information and photos of a new product a considerable amount of time before daily newspapers and the web. The journalists and photographers would sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) granting them access to the information ahead of its public release date.

Being a technology journalist, I encounter press embargoes on an almost weekly basis where companies want to keep news about (or a review of) a new smartphone, tablet or whatever a secret. I am currently under embargo with two companies, with a third expected to join them next week. Alongside these, I have a product review written and I’m waiting for the green light to say when it can be published.

What are the benefits?

Well, for the companies it means they can synchronise when content about a new product will go live. They get a huge boost in publicity as dozens of news announcements, image galleries, reviews and videos are all dumped onto the web at exactly the same time, often with scheduled tweets to promote each link.

On the other hand, the journalist gets to see products before they are launched, meaning there is often plenty of time to gather thoughts, take good photos and spend time writing content about them. There can be news stories, hands-on first impressions, galleries, videos and comparisons with rivals. The quality of these articles will generally be higher than when a story is rushed out as quickly as possible after an embargo-less announcement - or when filing copy from a press conference.

What about the drawbacks?

Sometimes, companies get very attached to their embargoes and can become aggressive towards any cavalier hack who thinks they can press the ‘publish’ button early.

Ferrari is a good (or bad) example here. Its latest flagship car, called the LaFerrari, was given to journalists to review earlier this year. Each invited writer travelled to Ferrari HQ in Italy, signed an NDA preventing them from publishing their review before 30 April, and drove the car.

This is all par for the course, but those who planned to buy content from the journalists in attendance - one hack might have been a freelancer for several publications, for example - quickly ran into a problem. Ferrari said publications not invited to drive the car themselves could not publish a paid-for or syndicated review until 12 May. Soon after, this slipped to 26 May.

Who would read a review of the car (let alone pay to read it) almost a month after the major car magazines, websites and newspapers had already published theirs?

And if anyone fancied breaking the embargo (thus being first to publish) would be slapped with a €50,000 fine by Ferrari, as stated in the NDA. Would any publication see this as a fair price to pay to get the exclusive? Perhaps...

I’ve never encountered anything quite as extreme but, while getting extra time to write content under embargo is useful, the company and its PR people are always the ones in control. Sure, anyone could publish ahead of time, breaking the embargo and giving everyone else the right to do the same, but this runs the risk of being blacklisted and no longer receiving information or products under embargo.

Some publications are more equal than others

But not everyone gets information ahead of time. Sometimes a press conference will take place with half of the journalists present furiously typing and photographing. Others, however, will have seen the product in advance and have their news story ready to publish right as the conference starts. This turns comical when there’s a delay for some reason, causing dozens of news stories and hands-on reviews to be published before the new product has even been revealed on stage.

Some then barge their way into the product demonstration room and queue up to “get hands-on” and take photos, while those who attended the embargoed pre-briefing need not bother and can head straight for the bar.

Of course, those not invited to a pre-briefing could choose to write their copy up later and produce something of higher quality, but the pressure to be first online is so great this is rarely a consideration. Get in, get out, publish as quickly as possible. It's difficult - especially during a packed trade show with multiple conferences - to do anything else.

What about reporting leaks?

Leaking is rife in technology journalism. Poor quality photos claiming to show a bit of an upcoming phone; a screenshot of a spreadsheet revealing the name of a new tablet in a retailer’s stock inventory; the odd iPhone prototype left in a bar.

Many tech hacks, myself included, publish most of these stories because, to quote many an editor, ‘it’s what the readers want’. People vaccum up every tidbit of news they can when it’s about the next iPhone or the new Samsung Galaxy phone, and we provide it. We don’t publish lies, but if the leak looks to be fairly legitimate we’ll publish it, complete with the usual “take this with a pinch of salt” disclaimer. It’s not Pulitzer prize-winning, but it brings in the hits, which in turn pay the bills.

But what happens when you sign an NDA, see an upcoming product, write a ‘first impressions’ piece and file it, ready and waiting for the embargo to lift in a few weeks’ time - and then there’s a leak about that product?

Do you only write about the leaks you know to be true? Do you write about leaks which you know are completely false, but will be popular? Do you stop writing about leaks entirely and sacrifice the hits they attract?

It’s a bit of a mess, quite frankly. But as I don’t have a solution I’ll continue to ask for content under embargo whenever I can. At least that way I know the quality will be high, even if I’m not the one in control.

Thursday
May232013

Twitter, Social Networking and Taking a Big Step Back

I’ve learnt a lot about social networking over the past few months. I’ve learnt how Twitter and Facebook are two very different beasts; that Twitter is of course public, but also how easy it is to forget who is or isn’t watching; how Facebook can leak like a knackered old Land Rover, and how utterly, hopelessly distracted we can become by both of them.


 Due to reasons known by a lot of you, I’ve taken a step back from Twitter recently. Don’t get me wrong, this step back still means leaving my iPad with TweetBot open on my desk for nine hours a day, endlessly scrolling with the tweets of fellow journalists, news agencies and friends.

But I’m tweeting less. I’d amassed 20,000 of the damn things since I was at college and it was all mostly hot air, bad jokes, shouting at the TV and conversations that didn’t quite fit into a single tw...

I, as do millions of others on Twitter, thought I was genuinely contributing to something worthwhile, that I was helping in some way. And I suppose being a journalist who sits in a newsroom day in, day out, I am in a position to spread news, and provide something of value to 600 or so followers, and generally be of value, but I’m hardly a Reuters wire service am I?

Taking a step back, looking at the deafening noise and mess I’d left behind reminded me of that photo of taken from the moon with the Earth a distant spec in the distance. I wanted to get back, but at the same time I quite liked where I was, as more of an observer than a contributor. I figured my follower count would stop growing but so be it, I had real friends who I met often, so if I lost those I tweet about delayed trains and rubbish TV then I’d get over it - no offense to you guys, delayed train tweets are fun. 

The first few days without Twitter - or at least without tweeting - were a bit strange. As I imagine the sight of a pub or the taste of beer makes a quitting smoker crave a cigarette, I would instinctively think to tweet whenever I saw something amusing or thought of a terrible pun on the day’s news.

It struck me just how engrained tweeting had become in my subconscious that my brain was instinctively offering up things to tweet about. I didn’t feel so much like I’d broken free from the shackles of Twitter, but it was startling to think how distracted by it I had become.

Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and probably Facebook too, turn us into show-offs, but more than that, they make us constantly tweet and check-in and whatever else as a way of proving our existence. Perhaps this is just an evolution of telling your mates a story in the pub, but take a step back and it just seems a bit strange, like those annoying family members who used to show off their holiday videos for hour after dull hour when no one really cared.

Author and filmmaker James Victore writes in the book ‘Manage your day-to-day’:

“To ‘know thyself’ is hard work. Harder still is to believe that you, with all your flaws, are enough - without checking in, tweeting an update, sharing a photo as proof of your existence for the approval of your followers.”

So while sharing creative photos and funny remarks no doubt entertains your followers and subscribers, I’m starting to doubt that this entertainment is our primary reason for posting to social networks. That, I fear, is for proving to ourselves that we and our lives are going as we’d planned; that we’re contributing, and if we don’t then we’re somehow missing out.

Perhaps I’ve gone mad, and perhaps this is all a load of bollocks, but taking a step back from the endless, deafening noise of social networks has made me realise just how much time and effort they can take up, while giving very little in return.

Please agree/disagree/troll in the comments below.

Friday
Mar042011

Kingston Exposed - How Twitter can spread misinformation

The power of the pen is great, but I didn’t expect our front page splash and page 4/5 spread of Kingston Exposed to explode like it has done. Although I didn’t write the story, I did tweet a number of times asking for information and quotes from anyone affected.

 

Now that the story has been printed and Twitter exploded, I feel that I should explain for those who haven’t read the story…

 

When a tweet says “Kingston exposed has made the papers” what they mean is, ‘it’s in the university paper, which is run by some students and has a circulation of a few thousand’. Kingston Exposed is not in any other newspaper – yet – and certainly has not appeared on television, which was suggested by several Twitter users.

 

The majority of tweets are related to a photograph taken of the front page of The River, although to the uninformed it could be a page from any newspaper. Those who are unaware of the university newspaper may believe that this photo was of a national daily paper. This is not the case.

 

The very use of ‘papers’ by many is incorrect, but no one stops to check the facts and the snowball continues to build.

 

To those who raise the issue of The River publishing the ‘#kingstonexposed’ hashtag; yes, we did publish the hashtag, but as of Friday evening Twitter users are asking for links to the original PDF. This, surely, counters any argument that The River has publicized the location of the Kingston Exposed file on the internet.

 

If anyone suggested that The River’s handling of Kingston Exposed was not trustworthy or accurate, then I suggest that you read the number of tweets stating that the story has ‘made the papers’. This phrase suggests a local, or even national, paper. Clearly, this is untrue.

 

It’s exciting when a big story breaks and even more so if something we’re locally aware of becomes ‘mainstream’. Kingston Exposed has not become mainstream, but thanks to dozens of tweets talking about it, they are themselves adding to the snowball affect that has brought the story back into the spotlight.

 

This happened two weeks ago when the file was first published online, it died down in days and this will undoubtedly happen again over the weekend.

 

The River told the story honestly and truthfully in a professional manner. No names or photographs were published. Front page stories by their very nature gain public interest and spark debate and reaction; that’s how news works. But hysteria soon kicks in, rumours spread and too many people pass on half-truths.

 

No matter how many threats are made, retweets are sent or photos of the pages are taken, this is a small story within Kingston University, which has appeared in the university newspaper. Twitter has the ability to spread news quickly and far-afield. Sometimes this is a good thing, but in this case, it’s unnecessary and simply makes a mountain out of a molehill.

 

 

The above views are mine and not of The River or Kingston University. 

Tuesday
Feb222011

I'm talking to you. Put your stupid phone away and listen

I've been wanting to write this blog post for quite some time, but reading this on TechCrunch suggesting that we should all get used to people being rude was the straw that broke the camels back.

The writer, MG Sieger, talks about checking his phone while at the dinner table and that his mother would rather he didn't, to his annoyance.

I read it all twice to check I was a) conscious and b) not blind, and then tried to think back to when I last disagreed with someone with the same magnitude. After a second or two I decided that I'd never disagreed with someone this much. Ever. Those who know me will hopefully agree that I'm a fairly tolerant chap, but this rudeness got to me.

So, to everyone who checks their phone with alarming regularity whilst with other humans, be it in a pub, cafe, or restaurant, this is for you...

 

What are you doing on your phone that's more important than the conversation you're currently in? Perhaps you hadn't realised in your digital, tweeting, status-checking state of delerium, but being with mates in the pub is called being sociable. These are your friends - like the ones you have on Facebook, but they actually give a damn about you. They're sat right in front of you, waiting for you to stop gawping at the tweets of someone you've never met and answer their bloody question.

I know checking your phone is habit, like heading straight to Facebook after opening a new browser window, but it's still unacceptable with others around you.

Just got a text? Of course you'd know, because your phone's on the fucking table, but does it need to be replied to right this very second? No. If the sender needed an instant reply because their house is on fire or they've lost their daughter then they'd call you, or someone less moronic.

So you've checked it anyway. Hey, it might be work-related! Only it's not, because it's probably your mum. Or Vodafone. But you checked, then you type out a reply, while your mates sit awkwardly waiting for you to rejoin that social network also known as the real world. Sure, they could keep talking, but then you're not listening so you'll butt in in a few minutes asking what they're talking about.

Incase you hadn't noticed - which you probably hadn't, because staring at your MSN contacts list is way more important - there's a sort of social hierarchy that you should probably stick to. At the top there's the people you are with right now; be it your mates, your mum or your bank manager, they take priority. So when you get a text/email/tweet/event invite/phone call LEAVE IT ALONE. It can wait a minute can't it? Yes. Yes it can, until your current conversation is over. Answering your phone while being served at a shop? I'm queuing behind you, wondering if I could tear your fingernails off one by one with a rusty key.

If I come back from the bathroom and see you checking your phone, that's cool, go ahead. You found a sensible time to check your tweets. You clever human, you.

Just because we all carry iPhones or whatever that leave us connected to the Internet 24/7 doesn't mean we need to be connected the whole time. MSN on your phone? Great for a long train journey, but in the pub? Turn the damn thing off and pay attention.

 

I should say that this post isn't aimed at any one person but Mr Siegler's blog post annoyed me. If you've made it this far then well done, you may check your phone now.

 

Tuesday
Feb012011

The future of search...facebook?

I've decided to write this post off the back of something Kevin Rose said last week, suggesting that Facebook will become a rival to Google in the search market.

You’ve probably never linked Facebook with internet search, but have a think about it. When you search for something on Google and get the results, how do you know if the results are accurate and reliable? You don't. You have a look around, make your own mind up and move on. But what if these search results had been voted up or down depending on its accuracy or relevance by millions of people?

Facebook already has a voting up system with the infamous 'like' button. If a search result is what you were looking for, then click 'like'. The more a link is liked then the higher up it'll appear in search results. A voting down system could be implemented, but that would probably be open to abuse, with sites voting down their rivals en masse.

Google already have a similar feature where results can be voted up, but Facebook can go further. Facebook knows an awful lot about you; not just your age and location, but your job, what films you like, which celebrities you admire etc etc. Whatever you say or ‘like’ on Facebook could be added to the algorithm used to provide your search results.

Recent comments could also be included, giving a quick review of if the link is relevant to your search or not.

Yes, it's completely open to abuse but so was the system Facebook used to translate their site into other languages, but the process of letting the users say what is the correct and incorrect translation worked so well that complete new languages were added to the site in mere days.

Facebook Search could make searching more accurate. Instead of searching for 'restaurant in Surbiton' and getting a random list, you'd get reviews and ratings, with the most popular restaurant appearing at the top. Link it to your own Facebook friends and their mentions of restaurants in Surbiton could also appear.

This personal, human search would grow incredibly quickly. Facebook has 600 million active users and half of these visit the site every day.

 

Eric Schmidt said this week that the future Google “will just know” what you want to search for, and while we maybe some time away from mind-reading, we’re definitely heading in the right direction.

 

Your mobile phone knows where you are, and once logged into Facebook it knows what you like, what you’re friends like. Now enter a to do list into your phone. ‘Buy new jeans’ might be on your list. Your phone – using data from Facebook about what brands you like, and any recent sales mentioned or purchases made by your friends – could prompt you when a relevant shop is nearby.

 

Yes, this sounds like a mobile phone that stalks your life, but I think it could be useful. The whole idea of crowd sourcing information is exciting; getting real, recommended search results instead of what Google thinks you want could be huge. The quantity of data we give Facebook is vast and this has already led to very targeted advertising. I think a targeted, useful search could be Zuckerburg’s next plan.