Wrong blogs are better than bad journalism

By Felix Salmon
May 4, 2009

In traditional journalism, you publish what you know for sure as quickly as you can while being assiduous about maintaining accuracy at all times. In financial markets, traders run with rumors and gut feelings and outright guesses on a regular basis, on the basis that they’ll change their mind (or, more to the point, their position) if they turn out to be wrong. And one of the reasons why traders like blogs — and why many journalists don’t like blogs — is that blogs tend to me more traderish than traditional journalism: they’ll run with stuff before it’s nailed down, without checking it, in the full knowledge that it might be wrong. How far they go in that direction depends entirely on the blog, which is one reason why blog readers need to be critical readers: you can’t read a blog and simply know, based on the reputation of the parent institution, that you can trust it implicitly.

For instance: this afternoon, a meme took hold in the blogosphere, started by Zero Hedge, and picked up by the likes of Clusterstock, that there had been some kind of unconscionable bullying of Chrysler holdouts by the White House. Wonderfully, the blog entries caused some real reporting from Dealbook, which got on-the-record denials of any such bullying from both sides. The denials don’t mean that negotiations never got heated at any point of course, but they do mean, I think, that the charges of fascism are maybe a bit overblown.

Blogs can also be sloppy: Clusterstock’s Henry Blodget, for instance, in asking for banks’ senior creditors to be part of any recapitalization by converting their debt to equity, says this:

The best way would have been to seize the banks and restructure them. Since Geithner has opted against the route, however, the next best way would be to convert unsecured bank debt to equity, not just the taxpayers’ preferred stock (the taxpayers’ preferred stock should have been senior to all the bondholders, but that’s spilt milk at this point).

But this just makes no sense: if the taxpayers’ preferred stock had been senior to all the bondholders, it wouldn’t have been preferred stock at all: it would have been a liability of the banks, not equity, and would have done no good whatsoever. You can’t make a borderline-solvent bank healthy by increasing its liabilities, only by decreasing them.

While I’m at it, I should also explain why Blodget’s broader argument is also flawed. He writes, of the plan to convert preferred stock to equity:

The banks will still have the same amount of crap assets on their balance sheets, and they’ll have no more capital available to absorb these losses when they hit. The only thing that will change is that the taxpayer will now get hit first as these losses flow through, instead of getting hit second, as is the case now.

But that’s a huge change, because when common stock holders get hit first, the banks can continue to operate quite happily. If a bank ever reaches the point at which its preferred stock holders get hit, on the other hand, it will pretty much automatically get taken over by the FDIC or otherwise cease to exist in its former form. So converting preferred stock to common really does strengthen a bank and make it more likely to be able to survive future asset write-downs.

Still, I’d much rather read inflammatory or even just plain wrong stuff on blogs than have to wade through execrable nonsense like Vanessa O’Connell’s 2,700-word article on discount shopping in the WSJ magazine. She’s great at (under)stating the bleeding obvious:

According to America’s Research Group, shoppers now view 70 percent off as a great sale, versus the 40-to-50-percent discounts of the past. At the 70 percent level, it’s extremely hard for traditional retailers to make a profit.

But more seriously, she’s also great at blithely parroting numbers without any indication of what they mean:

With carefully managed flash sales of top designer names—from Marc Jacobs to Missoni—it has amassed one million members within 18 months of launching, and the company says it’s on track to multiply its annual revenue to about $80 million, up from less than $7 million.

“On track”, of course, can mean anything — or nothing. If the company wants to give the WSJ its sales numbers, it should give the WSJ its sales numbers. If it doesn’t want to give out those numbers, that’s also fine. But if it doesn’t give out its sales numbers, the WSJ shouldn’t treat it as though it has revealed something interesting or important all the same. Especially when the journalist goes on to contradict herself on much less important numbers pertaining to the company later on in the piece:

Once you are invited to join the online sample sales at Gilt Groupe, get ready. To work up excitement, Gilt blasts an 11:50 a.m. email to its massive member list, with images of some of the designer clothes, shoes and accessories that will be offered at the noon sale time. At 11:59 a.m., there are typically somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people on the site, waiting for the clock to tick. Most of the merchandise sells out within the hour…

By 11 p.m., more than half of the women’s styles that went on sale at noon are generally sold out.

So, how long does it take for most of the inventory to be sold? One hour, or eleven? Did O’Connell, or her editors, bother to check? It seems not — despite the luxury of long lead times on the magazine.

The problem here, of course, is that because the piece is appearing in a fluffy lifestyle magazine, rather than in the newspaper proper, no one particularly cares about the content — it’s mainly just there to look glossy and help sell watches. Which is never going to be much of an issue on a blog. If you’re reading something on a blog, it’s not because it was commissioned as a high-concept way of filling the feature well, but rather because someone genuinely has something to say and wants to communicate it. You might need to approach with skepticism — but you should do that with all journalism, not just blogs. And if you’re reading critically, you can generally get much more insight from blogs than you can from carefully-circumscribed journalism. They might sometimes be wrong — but at least they’re provocative, interesting, and useful. Which is more than can be said for just about anything in the WSJ magazine.

Journalism can be fantastically good, of course — as can blogging. But when it’s bad, journalism, even in a well-respected publication, can be just painful — more so than just about anything you’re likely to find on a reasonably-respected blog.

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