The Verge assails unethical tech-industry PR

Originally published at: The Verge assails unethical tech-industry PR | Boing Boing



That gave me a laugh.


The link in the post contains non-URL text:

“http://, which are becoming more belligerent and manipulate than ever.”

This is the proper link to the article:


It’s about ethics in tech-industry PR?


My impression is that individual blogger and youtuber product reviewers actually take the “embargoed” thing seriously as they wish to continue receiving products to review. That’s why we end up seeing a whole bunch of reviews out on the same day as a product launch. Maybe BoingBoing is big enough and has enough other journalistic endeavors that this kind of pressure doesn’t work for it.

Once upon a time, there were media outlets that were known for their accuracy. I worked for one once, as an editor. If you misquoted someone, made up even a trivial bit of color in an article, staged a photograph without making it clear it was staged, modified a photograph, or showed a general lack of integrity when it came to reporting, you were fired, often by the founder/president/CEO, whose voice could be heard all over the floor when someone incurred his justified wrath. It was not cheap. Every article was written, then gone over by a copy editor who highlighed every factual statement, quote, or other verifiable item. This was then handed over to the fact checkers, who did just what the title suggested – they would call every source, read every transcript, hike over to the library, whatever it took to verify that what was written was correct. When mistakes were made, the correction was made in just as prominent a position if not more so – usually on the Table Of Contents page, but it the mistake was on the cover, that’s where the correction went in the next issue. What was this bastion of truth and integrity? A lifestyle and puff-piece rag aimed at elite, high-paid lawyers, kept from the hands of lesser folk by a $150/issue price, or $15 if you were a student, or worked pro-bono. Yes, they actually adjusted their price so that it could be accessible. It was The American Lawyer under Steve Brill, and the day he sold it to Time Warner I left the publishing industry to go do network engineering.


‘Course, you could paint this itself as a PR stunt, since it seems like Vox are saying “from now on we’ll refuse unethical requests”, and then congratulating themselves for it.

Perhaps gamergate has just made me overly cynical about tech journalists agonising about their industry like it’s the Council of Nicaea and not, you know, retyping press releases from doodad peddlers.


I think the “embargoed” mentioned by Rob is different than the “embargoed” you mention.

If a company ask you to agree to an embargo before you get a product or information then your agreement establishes that it is embargoed, and you had better respect that if you want to keep that relationship. In some cases companies may even provide a time limited NDA to make the embargo legally binding. The key to this is that you assent to being embargoed before any information is disclosed.

Rob mentions being sent information that says it’s “embargoed”, without seeking any confirmation to it beforehand. In that case there is no embargo. The reporter didn’t agree to it so the words have no meaning. Reporters generally dislike the presumption of being told they are “embargoed” instead of being asked if they will accept an embargo. Reporters in the past have just ignored the “embargo” and published the information. Some sleazy PR companies realized this, and figured that if they had some PR they wanted to ‘leak’ that would not normally get published they could manipulate reporters by calling it “embargoed” to trick reporters into publishing it.


I chalk what the Verge is finally pushing back against up to ignorance and amateurism serving a corporate bad faith agenda. Up until the rise of social media, a professional operating in good faith could be assumed to understand that “on background” (“on the record”, “off the record”, “deep background”, “not for attribution”, “embargoed”, etc.) has a very specific meaning and purpose. That can’t be assumed anymore, which meant that media shills could take advantage of callow reporters who might come into their job with no journalistic training.

Worse, I’ve heard of cases where there’s not even a release date or time attached to the embargo “stamp”. It’s just an empty buzzword the PR person thought would look good on the press release.

[Disclaimer: crabby former reporter, editor and fact-checker here]


Pretty sure I know which one it was.


Not even a funny joke.

VW: We’re changing our company’s name to “Voltswagen!”

Press: (Rolls eyes) Uh-huh. Sure you are.

VW: No, really! We are!

Press: This is just some lame attempt at a viral marketing stunt, right? Like when IHOP pretended they were going to change their name to IHOB?

VW: No, we are dead-to-rights serious here. You can even ask our executives.

VW Exec: I swear on my honor this is a real branding change and not a lame joke.

Press: You can’t actually be serious about—

VW: Ha, ha! April Fool! We got you good!

Press: No you didn’t and it’s still March, dumbass.



Actual press embargos don’t function by sticking “EMBARGOED” in an email subject line. With regards to reviews, products or media, the publication typically agrees to the press date in exchange for early access to review material. It might be a hand shake sort of thing, or involve signing actual legal paperwork. No one can just decide unilaterally there’s an embargo, or issue info that’s pre-embargoed.

Simply tagging something as “EMBARGOED” is not a thing, and not what that term means.

I might take it a bit more seriously if they named names in this article. Journalistic Ethics exist for a variety of reasons, on this front it’s mostly to retain relationships. But they’re attempting to call out others for acting unethically. All this “a company” reeks of we want to maintain access while being seen as doing something.

Given the absolute collapse in the job market for this stuff, that’s not what it really looks like in my experience. You’re more looking at people who have way more training than necessary, grinding it out to barely make rent. It’s that desperation that leads to reporting by press release. When you have to get multiple pieces out an hour, for multiple publications you can’t really do things properly.

I got some of that training and took a run at it. When I lost out on entry level jobs in local papers to people with 30 years of experience at major publications I figured Bartending was a better deal.


Years ago when I was in college, I took a class on the philosophy of technology. This was back in the first half of the 90’s when we were just getting a glimpse of how the internet might change the world. One thing that stuck with me was the thought that the internet would make data/information cheap and easy to find.

One thing I don’t recall people foreseeing was that as the cost of information went from expensive (press rooms, verified sources, editors, print) to cheap (a blogger with gossip and a laptop in a coffee shop), the amount of resources dedicated to verifying truthfulness also would trend towards zero.

Info like the kind outlined in this story that isn’t verified with an on the record source is valueless and no better than gossip. It’s great that The Verge won’t use sources like this in the future but you have to wonder why they did previously?


The problem is that these outlets are hiring (cheap, young) writers rather than reporters. There’s a real distinction in that terminology.

The writers in question don’t have Masters degrees in journalism (useless for the most part, but they do teach the basics) and probably didn’t work on college newspapers. They come from blogs and social media sites and are usually hired based on niche knowledge, an ability to write with flair, and a willingness to crank out articles quickly and in volume. The better ones willing to educate themselves in journalistic standards will break out into increasingly more established outlets. For example, a lot of the old Gawker writers are now actual reporters for more traditional outlets.

Reporters, meanwhile – those who are already trained to reject or question a BS “on background” demand without running to their editors – are scrapping for the dwindling number of jobs at outlets that would find it strange that The Verge even has to make this announcement. If they don’t get them they either go it on their own, try to use less rigorous outlets and platforms as a stepping stone to get noticed, or give up.


Very much my point. Most of those writers do have journalism or media degrees. That “come from blogs” bit is the job market here. You can have a PhD in journalism at this point. And if you actually want to do journalism, and entered the job market after about 2005, then you’re coming out of blogs and/or PR. Or medical publishing.

When I tried to do this that was all that was available, even at bigger traditional outlets. Friend of mine was hired at ABC News right out of film school. She started at their online/social media office, at a certain point she was the entire operation for multiple since retired web vectors, and for a bit she was basically the “uploads things to YouTube and Hulu” department. She’s doing pretty good now and gets to work on actual news these days.

This typically pays like shit.

I was actively warned off Gawker more than once, as they basically built their house on horribly underpaying trained professionals who couldn’t eat on the freelance gigs and unpaid internships that are the only other starting point.

They have about the same record on staffers going on to be “professionals” in your estimation as all the similar venues. Whether it be Buzzfeed or TMZ or whatever. And right along side them are a lot of people who professionally publish trash.

Friend of mine from highschool has a Masters in Journalism and Bachelors in design. She’s also a wildly talented photgrapher. After a good 7 years of living in her folks house and working as a Wedding Photographer, publishing photos (unpaid) in the local paper. She accepted a job at Buzzfeed. Idea being listicles would pay the bills and she could move to the then new and hiring surprisingly respectable folks News division.

A decade later she still writes listicles.

My cousin in Dublin has a Photography degree, combined Fine Art and Photojournalism, from one of the best programs for that in Ireland. If you saw any coverage of the 2006 Dublin Riots, you saw her photos. Likewise the Pro-Choice protests/marches, Marriage equality marches and votes on the same more recently. She did not get paid for any of that. She has a greeting card company and manages a couple locations of a Café group around Dublin.

Her sister, journalism degree from one of Ireland’s better schools. Makes reality TV for RTE.

This is simply what the field looks like now.

Those outlets aren’t generally going to find it strange these days. Their management is going to demand those reporters ignore the conflict. And will likely publish hand wringing op-eds about how The Verge’s half measure is bad for business.


I am still confused by the meaning of “on background”


Me too. No idea.

It is similar to “off the record”. But generally means the source may be directly quoted, and described (“an Employee”)but not named.

“Deep background” means they should neither be quoted, nor named or roughly identified.

And off the record means they can’t be mentioned and their info or statements can not be used directly.

So basically you’re looking at company spokespeople and official company statements trying to obscure that statements are coming from the company.

Publish our press release word for word, but do not acknowledge that a press release even exists.


This is our official position, but you are not allowed to say so. We reserve the right to deny that we said what we said. We reserve the right to change it without acknowledging that we have changed it.

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