How to handle ‘leaked’ news

Want to know what I think the worst part of my job is? The easy answer is a day when I get a bunch of personal and hateful things heaved at me anonymously. But that’s more of a byproduct of the job, not actually a part of it. The worst part of my job is when I am sitting online looking at any one of my aggregation feeds and I see something that I know is a “leak” of pertinent band information. Sometimes it’ll be Amazon or iTunes that has prematurely posted album information, sometimes it’ll be a tweet about a new song title from a small market DJ, or even, worst of all in my opinion, an actual song leak. I’ve talked about these tough circumstances before, most recently on episode 42 of the AP.net Podcast; however, I think that it’s worth expanding upon even more.

A large portion of this matter comes down to how I see my job. What is it that I do? Am I just a way to put out press releases when a band or label declares them ready for dissemination? Am I a “journalist”? Am I a blogger? By and large I view myself as a news aggregator and occasional columnist; someone offering an opinion on a variety of topics. I fear that if our website turns into just another place to post press releases we will have lost a part of what makes us special and loved. We will have lost what I believe is valuable to labels and bands in the first place: the very fact that people read our website. Some publications choose to value the bands’ or publicists’ wish and will at all costs. I understand that position and respect it — as I believe it is theirs individually to make. I, however, have to make the choice as a writer where I value our readers in this equation. I know that I don’t have full trust in certain publications because I can’t be sure that they’re writing for and respecting me, the reader, when they post. If I think a publication would pull an unflattering story or relevant information — I can’t trust them. And with that, I wouldn’t trust their opinion on music or their reporting on news stories. And, therefore, I use myself as a yardstick for the kind of reader I believe reads our site. What would I want to read, what would I expect, what standard do I hold the writers I follow to? These are the questions I ask myself every day.

I am well aware you may have different thoughts on how you would write online, I want to make it clear that I respect that as well — I’m not trying to say my way is the only way, or the right way, or even the best way. I’m simply trying to elucidate my reasoning and where I’ve landed at this stage in my career. I revisit my logic frequently, especially if I know it has bummed out a band I greatly respect.

Let’s look at it this way: If our core readers visit Twitter, or Facebook, or Tumblr, or another website similar to ours, and they have already seen some information by the time it’s “officially announced” — it has become “old news” to that audience. Giving people old news they’ve already read is antithetical to my mission statement. On the internet, yesterday’s news is virtually synonymous with nonexistence. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t put a pit in my stomach sometimes when we have to make a tough call. At the time when this information spreads to an official “source” like iTunes, I get stressed out. Did the band plan for it to just come out like this? Was there supposed to be an announcement? Why wasn’t this coordinated? What happened? And in a few minutes I have to start confirming information, preparing a post, and making the call for if it goes up or not. In this case, we posted it. Then I sit there and watch my email hoping that I don’t get one from the label asking us to pull the post down (or worse something directly from a band member). I hate those emails. I know it comes with the territory and I don’t hide from it. I really do believe the label is doing their job and I respect that. I always try and let everyone involved in one of those email chains know our policy, where the information is from, where it’s sourced from, that deleting it makes it worse, and that I will update the post with any information or statement from the band they’d like. Still, it’s a very stressful scenario (and as of this writing no such email has come in this particular case).

Let’s look at the other example of the day: I’ve known the guys in Yellowcard longer than many real life friends at this point. The people I went to my first Yellowcard show with I now know as those people I sometimes see on Facebook when they post pictures with their kids. Yet, even with this history, I believe in acting in accordance to our policy and not shifting it based upon the band in question. If we’ve been told not to post something under an embargo (more details about this special case below), I absolutely will not post it. Yet, if something is out on the internet and we are not the source for it — I do believe it is my job to post about it. If that causes harm in the relationship I have with a band, I totally understand that. It’s painful to me on a personal level but my other option is to bend my policy and give special favors for certain bands and therefore censor the news that I think that our audience would like to know (in turn they would be right to seek the information elsewhere and lose trust in me). Extrapolating that to its logical conclusion, we become a website that isn’t known for having the best information about all the bands readers want — and I feel as though I have failed at my job.

I’m not unlike most people: I don’t particularly enjoy bands, or labels, or publicists, or managers, or friends being mad at me. I don’t relish the idea of someone I respect being upset with me. It’s a dance between press and “journalist” (bleh) and one that I wish I had better solutions to after years of waltzing. My lighthouse is to continually come back to the question: Who am I writing for? I’m writing for the others like me that are looking for all the latest information on bands they love — and I feel duty bound to report on the information that’s available. All in all, this leaves me with a variety of options and a set of guidelines:

Option 1

I don’t post anything at all. The information is now elsewhere on the internet and I just wait until it is “supposed” to be released. It spreads around on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other websites. The “place” to talk about these stories is no longer AP.net — we, in turn, become more of a press release echo-chamber. The pro is that bands and labels probably like us more and the con is that our readers like us a whole lot less.

Option 2

I go rogue and post everything and anything. I post anything I hear, even if it’s embargoed or off the record. I post links to full album leaks and thumb my nose at legal. I lose respect for myself, hate my job, and quickly burn every bridge I’ve spent years building.

I see nothing good that comes from this option. I do see some sites that try and run with the full rebel/pirate mode and they seem to have a boost in popularity in the short term but few last very long. I’ve been doing this over a decade and don’t plan to quit anytime soon.

Option 3

I post the news and then remove it when asked by the band or publicist. This plays out very similar to option 1, only it also adds the wrinkle that our readers now know we are censoring newsworthy stories to some degree and that we can’t be trusted to give them the latest information about the bands they follow.

Option 4

I try to follow a set of guidelines (outlined above and below) and keep the dialogue open with bands and publicists and readers and other staff-members to make sure we are communicating every step of the way. This adds a level of transparency and hopefully trust with the reader — it lets everyone know where we stand and why. And, it keeps the conversation open for options we haven’t thought of or technology that hasn’t been invented yet. To pretend I have all the answers right now and can just follow a formula forever seems misguided at best. Mostly, I just want those that read my words to know where I’m coming from. I want them to trust me when I write something and know that I’m speaking from a position that places honesty paramount.

Album Leak Guidelines

One of the things I touched on in that podcast episode is that I will not post links to album leaks on our homepage. If a singular song leaks, I will, however, link to where it can be found. I will also immediately update that post to point toward where the song can be legally streamed or purchased the moment it’s available. This, to me, is probably the toughest call of all. I’m not specifically fond of linking to where someone can hear music if the band doesn’t want that music heard yet. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I do believe in my duty to inform our readers that a song is available to hear. I know that the band or label can normally have the sound file removed from somewhere like YouTube or Tumblr, but I am also aware that it’s sort of passing the buck. When this happens with a band I have a really great relationship with I can feel my hands get clammy and my stomach tie up in knots. This is where I have to try and be objective and realize that if I would post about the YouTube song “leak” of a band I didn’t like or consider friends, I need to be consistent in how I handle the situation with those I do.

Information About An Album / Tour Guidelines

These situations feel easier for me because it’s information and not music that is leaking. I understand a band, label, or publicist’s desire to control the information that comes out around certain big press announcements. I can empathize with all parties when they talk about how they get bummed out when information comes out before they’re ready.1This goes double when the band has had something special planned for the announcement or if they wanted to maximize the hype around information to coincide with a pre-sale or similar endeavor. I still struggle because I understand that without the bands making music, or going on tour, or being interesting to fans, we obviously don’t have a website; they are the lifeblood to the content that we cover. However, I am also cognizant of my duty to our readers: to present them with accurate and up to the minute reporting on things they are interested in reading. This is where all I’ve talked about above comes into play: I have to trust myself and my decision to write as though I’m our website’s number one fan.

Embargoes

When it comes to information that’s been embargoed, that is, given to us to post at a specific time but not before — I honor these completely. For example, I had the Yellowcard track listing before it was leaked today. Now, when something is embargoed that means I absolutely won’t be the source of the information, and I personally will not confirm something even if I know it to be true. I will present the information as “alleged” or “reported by” — and make it clear that I’m not confirming or denying the embargoed news. I am very careful about my words when I make a post on the website. If the information surfaces via another blog, or Amazon, or something that is not from us, then I will post about what has happened. This can create a weird scenario because, obviously, I wouldn’t post flat out false information. For example, I obviously knew the track listing being posted today was correct. I had not, however, seen the album artwork for Lift a Sail and made sure to note where the information was coming from, where I saw it, and that nothing was confirmed. It’s important to read how I word things because I always try to be as honest and upfront as possible about where information is coming from and what we currently know. I pick my words carefully. These situations, where information has hit the internet and I know the (embargoed) truth, are always complicated.

Off the Record

If someone tells me something off the record: I’m the only person that will ever know it. I don’t tell other staff, friends, or family. I usually will ask if this is information that can’t be attributed to the source and can be used as “background” or if it’s flat out never to be reported information. If it’s just for “background” — I’ll wait until I have multiple sources to run anything but without source attribution. I won’t give up a source, so you can either believe me or not in those situations, but my track record is pretty damn good.

When I cracked open my writing app and a beer tonight, I didn’t expect to write as much as I just did. But it feels good to have put it all down. These are the things that sit in my head and I have very few people I can discuss them with in any detail, let alone actually talk the theory behind them with. Thanks for reading if you made it this far — I venture the next long post will be about actual music.


This post was contributed to the Haulix blog by Jason Tate, founder of Chorus.fm.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.