Blocking periods in journalism: the gift of time

Media representatives are sometimes informed with generous advance notice. Even in the digital age, the embargo period does not lose its appeal.

Some information may not be published immediately. Image: dpa

The pressure to be up to date occasionally unearths the absurd. On Sunday, for example, the Fantastischen Vier were able to read on the website of the Kolner Stadtanzeiger that they had been "frenetically celebrated" by their fans – even though they were not supposed to perform until 45 minutes later. In journalism, speed often counts more than care, but there are at least a few instruments with which those being reported on can take the pressure out of the kettle: Blocking periods, for example.

Whether it’s politicians’ speech manuscripts, news from companies, new products, studies, books, films or music: If journalists agree to report on them only from a certain point in time, they are informed in advance – often it’s just a few minutes, but often it’s hours, occasionally even days or weeks. And then – as if at the push of a button – they all publish simultaneously on the same topic.

"Journalists love blackout periods," says Sonja Gruber. She is confronted with them almost daily as a business editor at the APA news agency in Vienna. She has also just presented a study on "News Embargoes" at the Reuters Institute for Journalism in Oxford. Her conclusion: Even in the digital age, this instrument is not losing its appeal; on the contrary, the days of embargoes "are not yet numbered – journalists are happy about the time that embargo periods give them.

Gruber has gathered many stories on this topic. For example, he says, the EU’s statistics agency, Eurostat, was considering abolishing blackout periods. "That didn’t please the correspondents of the news agencies, especially the economic services," Gruber reports. The journalists therefore lobbied on their own behalf. With success: at least for the time being, Eurostat continues to release material with embargo periods.

Only rarely sanctioned

In times of high-frequency trading, where algorithms react to the news situation in addition to flesh-and-blood stockbrokers, fractions of a second are now sometimes at stake. In this delicate environment, the U.S. Department of Labor also shares news in advance, but with precautions, as Gruber reports: Reporters sit in a "lock-up room" at the agency, where their connection to the outside world is cut off until the embargo expires. If something goes wrong, the FBI intervenes.

However, journalists breaking embargoes is the great exception. "When they do, it’s usually by mistake," says Gruber. Sometimes an intern makes a mistake out of sheer ignorance, sometimes a professional forgets to enter the embargo period in the editorial system. For this reason, a breach is rarely sanctioned, but this has also happened from time to time in the past decades: The Financial Times, for example, disseminated data from the World Bank too early and was subsequently left out for six months.

The U.S. agency Associated Press, on the other hand, once fired its reporter Edward Kennedy for announcing Germany’s surrender and thus the end of World War II in Europe too early. The agency did not apologize to Kennedy until 2012.

"The blackout periods are a kind of code of honor in the industry," Gruber says. In fact, although the Press Council in this country removed a passage from its code years ago that recommended adherence to blackout periods, the tool still works. "It gives us more time to deal with the material," says Froben Homburger, news director at the German Press Agency. He therefore promotes blackout periods, not least because it allows newspapers to have in the paper the next day what is sometimes not officially said or published until shortly before or sometimes even after press time.

Problems with digital apps

Now, however, it is the newspapers that are undermining some of the embargo periods. The German Chancellor’s New Year’s speech on TV, for example, was sent to many editorial offices the day before it was broadcast, blocked until midnight and explicitly released for the daily newspapers on the day of broadcast. In the digital editions, however, Angela Merkel’s messages could be read early in the evening, and in some newspaper apps from 7 p.m. onward. With its early digital edition, the taz is admittedly also contributing to this phenomenon, about which employees of TV and radio stations in particular have recently been grumbling on social networks.

"There have been evening editions before, in Munich, for example, printed on the S-Bahn," counters Stefan Plochinger, a member of the Suddeutsche Zeitung’s editorial board. "Now it’s just digital, but just as tolerated because it’s already formally the next day’s edition." Purposefully withholding a report until the digital edition is updated during the night is possible, but the exception, he said.

In fact, so far no one is shouting "The embargo period is broken!" and shooting off after it. "We tend to look at how other agencies behave," explains dpa man Homburger, for example – ignoring publications in newspaper apps. "Where there’s no plaintiff, there’s no judge," says APA editor and blackout researcher Gruber.

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