The brilliant Joe Weisenthal

By Felix Salmon
May 10, 2012
Binyamin Appelbaum has delivered a 3,000-word day in the life of Joe Weisenthal for the NYT Magazine, complete with 18-page slideshow.

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Binyamin Appelbaum has delivered a 3,000-word day in the life of Joe Weisenthal for the NYT Magazine, complete with 18-page slideshow. (“7:06 am: Weisenthal catches the 6 train uptown from his apartment at the edge of the Financial district to the Business Insider offices in the Flatiron District.”) Nothing in the piece will come as any surprise to anybody who follows @TheStalwart on Twitter, although I think that Appelbaum doesn’t quite nail the way in which Twitter allows Joe to keep up a running self-deprecating meta-commentary on how crazy the job is that he’s given himself. You’ll never find a CNBC anchor, for instance, tweeting out anything like this, from this morning:

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Jeffrey Goldberg nails Joe with a single tweet, saying that he “may have more shpilkes than anyone in America”. Which raises the single biggest issue I have with Appelbaum’s piece, as exemplified in his central thesis:

In the intensely competitive world of financial blogging, dominated by young men who work long hours and comment on every new development, Weisenthal stands apart by starting earlier, writing more, publishing faster.

Appelbaum is absolutely right that Weisenthal stands apart by starting earlier, writing more, publishing faster. That’s who Joe is. But he’s absolutely wrong that there’s an “intensely competitive world of financial blogging, dominated by young men who work long hours and comment on every new development”. Go on — name a single other financial blogger who fits that description. I’m waiting. There’s the anonymous group blog ZeroHedge, perhaps. But the fact is that Henry Blodget, in hiring and promoting Joe, has succeeded in identifying and harnessing and leveraging a nervous energy which has been there all along. He didn’t start with some kind of inhuman job description and then hire Joe to fill it; he found Joe and then basked in the fruits of encouraging him to simply be his natural self.

Yet again, it seems, the NYT Magazine has published a blogger profile which makes bloggers seem weird, immature, and hyperactive — the kind of profile where the subtext is that “it’s OK if you don’t care about the second-to-second noise and the personal revelations, you’re fine ignoring the blogosphere completely and getting a more considered view of things from the NYT instead”.

For instance, Applebaum devotes a large chunk of the profile to the genesis of a single tweet, which reads “DISASTER: MARCH JOBS REPORT MISSES EXPECTATIONS AT 120K (Analysts expected +205K) “. Pulling himself up to the full height of The Times, Appelbaum declares that the tweet “looks pretty silly in retrospect”, adding:

The creation of 120,000 new jobs was not a disaster by any reasonable definition. Other media outlets, some working almost as quickly as Weisenthal, chose far more modest words.

As Applebaum says, this was the first tweet about the jobs report that day — ahead of the ones saying simply “120k”. And in that ultra-fast tweet, Joe managed not only to get out the news of what the number was, he also managed to place it in the context of Wall Street expectations, explain that the number fell short of those expectations, convey the importance of the payrolls report, include a link to a live Business Insider story on the report, and do the whole thing with wry humor. Joe’s “DISASTER” was never meant to be taken literally: hyperbole is his stock in trade, he loves it, and his audience loves him for loving it.

Business Insider is a bit like a much more honest, much funnier version of CNBC: while other media outlets still work within a tradition of self-importantly handing down the news on engraved stone tablets, TBI is much less reverent — about the news, about itself, about anything really. At its heart, the part of TBI that Joe runs is basically color commentary on the markets — sometimes fast, sometimes clever, sometimes stupid, sometimes profane. It doesn’t matter, so long as it isn’t boring.

If you care about the markets, this kind of coverage is exactly what you want. Dry reports saying that this went up and that went down are a waste of time: if you wanted to just know what was up and what was down, you could simply look at the numbers yourself much more easily. And quotes from analysts and strategists aren’t much better: their main interest is in looking considered and intelligent, which means that they self-censor and tend to produce boring banalities. TBI, by having no equity in being right, gets to enjoy itself, and reflect the manic energy of a trading floor and the kind of attention span those traders have.

Appelbaum does praise Joe, too: he has nice things to say about this post, from November, for instance. Here’s Appelbaum’s précis of what Joe wrote:

In a post last November titled “Everyone Is Wrong About What Is Driving the Market These Days,” Weisenthal reproduced a Google search showing a slew of articles describing the stock market as “headline-driven,” meaning that prices were responding to the latest news. Then he showed a chart he created illustrating the close relationship between movements in stock prices and a basic economic indicator.

“So it’s a ‘headline-driven market’?” he wrote. “Nah, not really. . . . The market is just moving with the fundamentals, week in and week out. The headlines are mostly a distraction.”

That’s 95 words. The post itself is 62 words long.

A large part of Joe’s genius is that he writes short better than anybody else in the business. The NYT Magazine, of all places, with its one-page magazine feature, should value that. Writing short is what gives Joe’s blog posts punch, that’s what explains how Twitter is such a natural medium for him, and that’s why Blodget values him more highly than any other writer at TBI. I only wish I were better at learning from him myself.

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