The $100 hamster wheel

December 7, 2010
press release announcing "a delay in the issue date of the redesigned $100 note". Sometimes, there's a great little story hidden behind such news, and in this case it was CNBC's Eamon Javers who found it:

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Back on October 1, the Fed put out a short, bland press release announcing “a delay in the issue date of the redesigned $100 note.” Sometimes, there’s a great little story hidden behind such news, and in this case it was CNBC’s Eamon Javers who found it:

An official familiar with the situation told CNBC that 1.1 billion of the new bills have been printed, but they are unusable because of a creasing problem in which paper folds over during production, revealing a blank unlinked portion of the bill face.

A second person familiar with the situation said that at the height of the problem, as many as 30 percent of the bills rolling off the printing press included the flaw, leading to the production shut down.

The total face value of the unusable bills, $110 billion, represents more than ten percent of the entire supply of US currency on the planet, which a government source said is $930 billion in banknotes. For now, the unusable bills are stored in the vaults in “cash packs” of four bundles of 4,000 each, with each pack containing 16,000 bills.

Officials don’t know exactly what caused the problem. “There is something drastically wrong here,” a person familiar with the situation said. “The frustration level is off the charts.”

Javers had time to put together his story, and it shows. But according to some weird rule of journalism, the minute that CNBC ran the story, a full nine weeks after the original press release came out, everybody else felt that they had to have it too, and have it immediately.

And so it came to pass that Brady Dennis of the Washington Post started making phone calls to Treasury, Thomas Grillo of the Boston Herald called up the printers, the AP phoned the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Alex Branch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called the Bureau’s Engraving and Printing Western Currency Facility, all in the service of re-reporting hastily what CNBC had already reported carefully. Charles Riley of CNNMoney spoke only to “an official familiar with the situation,” while Dan Arnall of ABC spoke to “sources.” None of them, with the honorable exception of WaPo’s Dennis, credited CNBC; Krystle Gutierrez of Fox in Dallas even put an “originally reported by” slug on the bottom of her story, mentioning CNBC nowhere.

On top of that, lots of sites rewrote the CNBC story, giving CNBC credit but doing no new reporting themselves, and sometimes mangling the facts along the way.

$100 bills are sexy things: even the rich get a frisson from handling them. As such, they’re irresistible to news editors, especially on a very slow news day. But aren’t we meant to be entering the age of reporting a few stories well and then linking to the rest? Haven’t we always worked under the general principle of “faster than anyone better, better than anyone faster”? I can’t help but think that if news organizations put a tenth of the amount of effort into external linking that they do into re-reporting other people’s stories, we’d have a much more vibrant and useful news culture.


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