Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fool Me Once

What's going on over at The Washington Post? Didn't its editor ever hear that old saw, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"?

In the Post's case, they are working on "Fool me three times." What's up with that?

I didn't really give the matter any thought until I noticed the "Talk Back" question for the week in Publisher's Weekly. "Talk Back" is PW's chat feature. It poses a question and then asks readers to respond. This week's question: "With State of Denial the latest book to have an embargo broken, in today’s information drenched world is it fair to expect booksellers and media to honor an embargo?"

Backstory: State of Denial is the latest in reporter Bob Woodward's books on the Bush presidency. It was scheduled for publication Monday, October 2. The embargo PW refers to is the long-standing policy of bookstores not to sell a book prior to its publication date--despite the fact that stores often have the books in stock for some time prior to the actual publication date.

Simon & Schuster, the book's publisher, had designed a very elaborate PR strategy. S&S is a division of media giant CBS. According to an article in Saturday's New York Times, "Extensive excerpts [of State of Denial] would appear in The Washington Post, where Mr. Woodward works, on Sunday and Monday. The book would be featured Sunday night on “60 Minutes.” And excerpts would appear Monday in Newsweek, which is also owned by the Washington Post Company."

This planned PR campaign was a perfect example of the clout giant media has. The Washington Post Company would benefit from having its employee's book excerpts appear in both its newspaper and its magazine,Newsweek. CBS would benefit from having Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary, flack its book on its own television show. Perfect examples of synergism.

A little thing happened on the way to the party.

The New York Times.

On Friday, September 29, The New York Times (NYT) scooped everyone with two stories that included both quotes from the as-yet-unpublished book and a rebuttal story with reaction from the White House.

The scoop seemed to take everyone by surprise. S&S moved up the release of the book to Saturday, September 30th. Instead of being happy that the book was generating sales, David Rosenthal, publisher of S&S, snarked to the NYT: "Regardless of sales, he said, a principle was violated because it appeared some booksellers had sold the book to The Times, The Daily News and other outlets even though they had signed affidavits saying they would abide by embargoes. Breaking an embargo, he said, can disrupt a highly structured, coordinated publicity and sales program."

Yeah, he's crying all the way to the bank.

The thing that confuses me is why The Washington Post didn't anticipate this happening. It's not as though it hasn't happened before.

More than once.

On May 31, 2005, Vanity Fair published an article on its website revealing that Deep Throat, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate source, was really W. Mark Felt, Sr. I admired Woodward for honoring his promise to protect Felt's identity for more than thirty years. At the same time, I'm sure everyone at The Washington Post had to feel miffed at being scooped on the story that they originated and which brought down a presidency.

Fool me once.

Following the revelation of Felt's identity, Woodward decided to capitalize on the story with his book, Secret Man. Simon & Schuster, which also published that book, set the publication date for July 6, 2005.

On June 30, USA Today released an article that listed the secrets in the book. Once again, The Washington Post was forced to play catch-up, chasing after the story written by their own reporter.

Fool me twice.

What I don't understand is--with all this history of leaks and scoops--why The Washington Post didn't anticipate a reprise and develop a backup plan for the release of State of Denial this week.

Yeah, it's all very well and good to blame the booksellers, but . . . come on. Think of the temptation to a teenage clerk if he were offered $500 to hand over a book that would be made available to the public in a few day's time. All he'd have to do is delay logging the sale on a register for a couple of days.

In a digital age, when a newspaper or magazine can go to press in a fraction of the time it once took to release a story, this sort of thing is going to become commonplace. Media executives are going to have to balance the pros of a carefully planned campaign against the cons of being scooped.

And someone is going to have to add another clause to that old adage:

Fool me three times.

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