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Embargoes: When to Use Them, When to Break Them

Hacks and flacks tackle the embargo imbroglio of securing a scoop without damaging relationships

By Amanda Ernst - November 30, 2009
When the Journalism School at Columbia University released a report prepared by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson about the future of American journalism, it did what many organizations do when they want the maximum amount of publicity for their news: They offered the report to a handful of journalists under an embargo.

The school reached out to reporters on the media beat, including Reuters journalist Robert MacMillan and Slate.com's Jack Shafer. The embargo was set for the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009, and both MacMillan and Shafer accepted. But on the Sunday night before the embargo was up, The New York Times' Web site published David Carr's weekly media column which outlined the report.

MacMillan was angry that he had been scooped. "I called the spokeswoman I had been working with, and she told me that someone else there got a call from David Carr who asked her if he could run a story about the report for his Monday column," he explained. "She said yes, but no one told me."

Shafer heard the same story. "I was told that David had asked, and if I had asked they would have lifted it for me. So why have an embargo? If they were going to lift it, why not tell everyone?"...

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