In praise of DealBook

By Felix Salmon
August 29, 2011

Every so often, Andrew Ross Sorkin will ask me when I’m going to write something nice about him. It doesn’t happen very often, because I’m more likely to feel the need to disagree with someone on the internet than I am to feel the need to agree with them. It’s called Siwoti syndrome, and it’s endemic to the blogosphere.

And so it’s fitting that the impetus for me saying nice things about Sorkin’s baby, DealBook, is the ridiculous column from the NYT’s ombudsman public editor, Arthur Brisbane, this week. It begins thusly:

WILL readers of The New York Times in print get less because The Times must invest to compete for readers and advertisers in the digital medium?

The DealBook business news product may offer an early indication. DealBook, which was greatly expanded last fall, is a prominent presence on NYTimes.com, offering up-to-the-minute news and trivia about Wall Street deals, regulatory issues, venture capital and personalities. In print, meanwhile, it owns a half-page inside Business Day four days a week — a much lower profile than online.

This is utterly bizarre. DealBook, one of the highest-profile expansions of the NYT in recent years, is indeed a digitally-native project. It would be pretty idiotic if most of the NYT’s new sections weren’t digitally native. But as Brisbane notes, DealBook exists in print as well, taking up two full pages per week. Therefore, thanks to DealBook, readers of the NYT in print are getting more than they were before — not less.

Much more importantly, DealBook content isn’t confined to the half-page DealBook ghetto; many of DealBook’s best stories have appeared on the front page of the newspaper. When you hire reporters like Sue Craig, you run her stories big — and that’s exactly what the NYT is doing.

Different types of news work best in different formats. The Sunday magazine is better in print than it is online; DealBook is better online than it is in print. This is cause for celebration: the NYT is proving that it’s nimble enough to use whatever format works best for given content. It has dozens of blogs; I haven’t seen Brisbane complaining that they’re not available in print, or referring to their contents as “trivia.”

But Brisbane has his mind made up.

DealBook has a strangely precrash feel to it.

We can all remember what things were like before 2008: Wall Street was king, New York was the center of the financial universe, the titans of finance were gods. DealBook’s offerings remain closely aligned with that paradigm, even though the titans have lost their shine, markets have been shifting away from New York, and the postcrash world is determined far more than before by China and the broader global economy.

Despite this shift, DealBook’s reporting is about deals, hedge fund news and the doings of people on the Street.

It’s worth following Brisbane’s links, and not only because the first one goes to Reuters. His datapoints proving that Wall Street is irrelevant are (a) the fact that Lloyd Blankfein has hired a criminal defense lawyer; and (b) the megamerger between Deutsche Börse and the NYSE. Both stories, of course, have been extensively covered by DealBook; they’re right in its wheelhouse. And neither of them shows what Brisbane seems to think they show — that DealBook is an anachronistic throwback because Wall Street is less relevant than it used to be. Wall Street has always had lawyers and mergers; they’re what it’s built on.

Brisbane seems to think of Wall Street, and/or DealBook, as some kind of recondite island, insulated from bigger economic forces:

When the world economic system shuddered and stock markets dropped, I was left wondering whether The Times should have spent its money not on expanding DealBook but on enlarging its stable of journalists aimed at the wider subjects of international banks and sovereign debt.

This is just bizarre. For one thing, there’s no conceivable sense in which this is an either/or choice — Brisbane adduces no evidence whatsoever that absent extra DealBook reporters, the NYT could or would have hired more experts on the international-banks-and-sovereign-debt beat. And he ignores the screamingly obvious fact that DealBook’s new recruits know substantially more about international banks and sovereign debt than the overwhelming majority of existing NYT journalists, and therefore add to and improve the NYT’s coverage of such matters.

As Larry Ingrassia says, DealBook journalists have indeed been covering the big global and national issues in the world of finance.

Brisbane, by contrast, wants to see “in-depth investigating of a complex ecosystem” in Europe, and wants the NYT to help its readers “understand deep crises like European debt” by having journalists “step up and look at things systemically.” Brisbane reckons that DealBook is doing none of these things; that’s a matter of opinion. But he goes further than that: he says that the NYT’s investment in DealBook “meant forgoing an opportunity to strengthen reporting elsewhere.” And by “elsewhere”, Brisbane clearly means “elsewhere on the international-business-and-economics beat.”

Brisbane offers no evidence whatsoever that this might be the case. And common sense says that the opposite is true. If the NYT is pouring money into deep analysis of international finance, that’s surely an indication of resources going in the right direction, not the wrong direction. Meanwhile, if you want to point to wasted resources, DealBook stories on George Soros’s girlfriend pale in relation to the kind of things regularly called out by the @NYTOnIt Twitter stream. Is DealBook setting up email addresses dedicated to reporting the names of bodega cats? It is not. Is DealBook breathlessly reporting that Facebook makes it easy to wish your friends a happy birthday? It is not. Has DealBook uncovered the astonishing fact that women wear dresses in the summer? It hasn’t, sorry. But Brisbane points to none of these things as evidence of resources being wasted on frivolity rather than being put to good use in serious investigations of Europe’s financial woes.

More to the point, DealBook is being funded generously precisely because it represents an opportunity to bring new advertisers and new money to the NYT. Brisbane, far from disdaining the DealBook party featuring “charter advertisers like Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital,” should be celebrating the fact that “in today’s straitened circumstances” — his words, not mine — the NYT has managed to identify a deep-pocketed source of new revenues. If Brisbane wants to fund in-depth investigations of the possible global spillovers from a European collapse, then using new revenues from DealBook might be an obvious way of doing that, no?

In any event, as an assignment editor, Brisbane is pretty weak:

Just as the 2008 crisis was largely explained after the fact by The Times and other publications, the current situation feels like a replay in which we may learn only later how the tumbling dominoes were arrayed. Perhaps most important to Times readers, little is being written about the consequences that a catastrophic event in Europe could have on the United States and the world economy.

Perhaps The Times will yet jump in and expose the linkages between Europe’s institutions and the American economy and markets — before the other shoe drops.

Well, yes, Arthur, that’s the way that events in the news get explained — after they happen. You can’t explain the consequences of a catastrophic event before that catastrophic event happens, because we live in a highly complex and interconnected world which is inherently unpredictable. Was there any way of predicting, before the subprime bubble burst, what a collapse of the US housing market would do to international markets and economies? No, there was not. For instance: it caused massive losses in obscure German state-owned banks, it caused a strengthening of the dollar, and it also caused a flight out of alternative markets like Brazil. In hindsight, it’s possible to explain all of these things. But you need to see how the tumbling dominoes fell in order to be able to explain how they were arrayed.

Markets aren’t all-knowing, and they can be spectacularly wrong at times. But journalists are certainly worse at predicting the future than markets are.

Arthur Brisbane might be right about the cause of the next global crisis, but even if he is, there’s no good reason to believe that an investigative piece at this point would prove to be remotely prescient or useful for the NYT’s readership. That’s why journalists much prefer to do what they’re best at, which is reporting and analyzing the news — stuff which is happening now, or which has already happened. DealBook does that in a fast and readable and webby way, making smart tactical inroads onto a field being slowly abandoned by Rupert Murdoch’s WSJ. What’s more, DealBook — in contrast to the rest of the NYT website — is completely free.

So let’s celebrate the fact that DealBook is doing something successful and new under the auspices of the NYT. Criticisms of the form “you wrote A, but I think that B is more important and germane, so you should have written B instead” are always silly and demeaning. If Brisbane is forced to resort to that argument when criticizing DealBook, the inevitable result is that he just ends up looking particularly off-target himself.

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Comments
5 comments so far

I sense that Brisbane’s objection to DealBook’s focus on finance, Wall Street, and hedge funds is more aesthetic than anything: don’t focus on those tasteless, base financial parasites when we have sweeping macro issues to contextualize.

But that is a program for commentary, or polemics, not journalism.

Posted by EpicureanDeal | Report as abusive

I don’t know all that much about finance or Wall Street, but I do know publishing. And Brisbane sounds like many dinosaurs that I’ve known who believe that print has long since become the perfected media for communicating information, and can never possibly be replaced. I know many publishing veterans whose best argument for print is that “it feels good in my hands”.

If his true intention is instead to debate the allocation of resources within NYT, then the readership is emphatically not the place to do it.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

If Brisbane really wanted to cover finance properly he could start by sacking the shaved chimps who write the NYT currently. Then maybe you’d get articles from someone who knows the difference between an asset and a liability or who can get other basic facts correct.

EpicureanDeal, you mean thesedays there is a difference between “journalism” and polemics?

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I get more useful insights about the world of finance in 5 minutes of FT Alphaville than I get in a month from DealBook. It’s CNBC, without the videos.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

maynardGkeynes, yeah I got the scoop on how the ECB was going to let banks post their liabilities as collateral for loans from FT Alphaville. No one else thinking out the box like that.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive
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