Hoping for a better NYT ombudsman

By Felix Salmon
June 3, 2012

Back in August, the NYT’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, penned an idiotic column about DealBook, saying that the NYT’s focus on Wall Street was in some way preventing it from big longform analyses of the European crisis. Today, he returns to his DealBook-bashing ways, complaining — I swear this is true — that by serving the kind of people who are interested in Wall Street, the NYT is ignoring the needs of individual investors who want to be told whether the latest hot IPO is going to go up or down.

Brisbane does that annoying thing of outsourcing his opinions to others (Ryan Chittum, Larry Kramer, Chris Roush), but he clearly endorses Roush’s criticism that the NYT didn’t do a good job, in the run-up to the Facebook IPO of explaining “whether this would be a good stock for an individual investor to own”.

Or, to put it another way, the NYT didn’t warn individual investors that Facebook stock was going to go down rather than up.

This of course is completely bonkers. There is no possible away that the NYT could have known that Facebook stock was going down — it’s not smarter than the markets as a whole. And in any case, it’s not the NYT”s job to rate IPO stocks on the basis of whether they’re likely to go up. You want that, buy a stock-picking newsletter, or Barron’s.

The most annoying thing, for me, about Brisbane’s column is right there in the headline: “Wall Street and the Average Reader”. Brisbane talks about “the general reader who relies on The Times to explain the risks of the stock market”, and says that “the paper could have done more to help the average investor understand the risks of the offering”. He continues:

The Times should have provided more focus for general-interest readers, who needed help cutting through the clutter. More coverage aimed at small investors may well have led to more scrutiny of the risks.

But with its specialized finance blog, DealBook, plus its general-news mission over all, the paper is committed to two audiences, and that is a challenge.

It took me a while to understand what Brisbane was saying here, so let me spell it out: Brisbane is making no distinction whatsoever between a general-news average reader of the NYT, on the one hand, and a small investor interested in buying Facebook stock in its IPO, on the other, looking to the NYT for guidance.

This is just utterly bizarre. The Facebook IPO was a big news story, which deserved a significant amount of coverage. Lots of people were interested in the story — and the overwhelming majority of them had no interest whatsoever in buying Facebook stock on day one. Many NYT readers, of course, don’t have anywhere near the amount of money or risk appetite needed to be investing in the stock market at all. Those who do, generally invest in funds, be they of the mutual or index variety. There’s a small minority of NYT readers who buy individual stocks for their own account, but even most of those generally stay away from the highly-specialized world of IPO investing. And of the tiny majority of NYT readers who actually buy stock in IPOs, only a fraction of them will make their decisions based at all on what the NYT says.

So it’s baffling to me why Brisbane is talking about the “average reader” here. The NYT served the average reader perfectly well.

And it’s frankly stupid for Brisbane, armed with 20-20 hindsight, to declare that Nick Bilton’s very good article about Facebook’s final prospectus revision wasn’t enough, and that “the Times could have delved much more deeply” into the issue. Surely he knows that the only reason he’s saying that is news that came out after the IPO, about the way in which the revision was accompanied by whispers from Facebook to various Wall Street analysts, causing them to downgrade their estimates of Facebook’s second-quarter revenues. There’s no way that the NYT should have known about those whispers pre-IPO, even if it did deep delving.

More generally, Brisbane is still stuck in a mindset which says that the NYT has to be all things to all people. It is possible that some tiny number of NYT readers thinks that the newspaper is the best place to go for fundamentals-based analysis of the Facebook IPO price, and that they should read the NYT, first and foremost, before deciding whether or not to participate in the IPO. But even if those people do exist, it is not incumbent upon the NYT to write articles for them.

Brisbane does at one point cite with admiration the work of Eileen Brown, a blogger at ZDNet. I’m not sure, but I think that he thinks that the NYT should have basically written the articles that she was writing. (Or, for that matter, that any number of other bloggers were writing all over the internet, at sites like SeekingAlpha or Business Insider or many others.) That’s just silly. Brisbane could — but didn’t — say that the NYT was missing links to the work of bloggers like Brown or Henry Blodget: that because the NYT sensibly does not consider itself a source of advice on whether or not to buy into a certain IPO, then it should point readers interested in such things to the best analysis available online.

But in order to say something like that, Brisbane would have to be a very different kind of public editor. He’s leaving, in September; I very much hope that when the NYT appoints his replacement, it won’t plump for yet another curmudgeonly dinosaur. So far, we’ve had a series of 60-something white men with long experience of, and nostalgia for, the glory days of print journalism. It’s time for a change: it’s time for someone younger, who appreciates that the overwhelming majority of the NYT’s readers no longer read it in print, who appreciates the power of hyperlinks and social media, who will use the public editor’s blog and Twitter accounts in new and powerful ways, aggregating the vibrant conversation which is always raging about the NYT, rather than treating those tools like a regrettable and newfangled source of extra problems and extra work.

My suggestion: Anna Holmes. I’m quite sure that she, unlike Brisbane, would engage effectively with, say, Xeni Jardin’s fantastic critique of today’s NYT declaration that men invented the internet. She might even — horrors! — engage in the comments on Xeni’s site, rather than remaining aloof in the NYT’s ivory tower. The NYT is a hugely important digital news organization with a fantastic social-media footprint. Here’s hoping that it manages to find a public editor worthy of engaging with the organization the NYT must be, rather than the one it was in decades past.

Update: Failing Anna Holmes, it seems to me the least they can do is appoint Pat Kiernan.

7 comments

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Don’t forget, this is the same guy who “isn’t sure” that the NY Times should be in the business of fact checking. They will be well rid of him in September. I frankly think the whole public editor experiment has been an abject failure.

Posted by very-simple | Report as abusive

Re: The “fantastic critique,” I assume you are you the proper root of fantastic, which is fantasy. There is a difference between computers and their behavior as stand-alone entities (which Hopper and Lovelace are noted for) and as part of isolated networks (which is what spanning tree resolves) and the ARPANET and its progeny. Reading the comments over there I see they also conflate the two.
And yes, I worked on the early Milnet, just after ARPANET was retired. I was in the USAF and I worked with a bunch of guys from BBN building the support network. The comment from the writer was obviously exaggeration, no doubt there were women in the BBN effort. Nevertheless, that meme is far closer to the truth than the misandrous slander that Ms. Jardin is propagating.

Posted by OnkelBob | Report as abusive

The Facebook IPO did not deserve a significant amount of coverage. Why in god’s name should a stock offering be of interest to anyone outside of the financial industry? Think about it. Isn’t this just another way of the NYT telling us that what’s important is not what means something in our own lives, but in the life of Wall Street? Isn’t this just another Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous distraction. That this IPO received the amount of coverage it did is a sure sign of how polluted our public discourse has become? This IPO deserved at best a one paragraph story on page 8 of the business section, if that.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

C’mon, Felix, don’t go declasse on us. There’s no need to call it an “idiotic column” even if it is one. Bring out your real Brit and skewer the guy more cleverly.

By the way, since it looks like it’s time for a woman in that office, we think our Angry Lau ought to be the one, assuming that Kleiner Perkins gig she’s trying to get doesn’t work out.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

Perhaps ironically, Brisbane was publicly wondering a few months ago whether the Times should be a ‘truth vigilante’:

http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/20 12/01/12/should-the-times-be-a-truth-vig ilante/

Apparently, the answer is ‘yes’ with respect to IPO prospectuses and ‘no’ with respect to politics.

Posted by MattF | Report as abusive

Brisbane talks about “the general reader who relies on The Times to explain the risks of the stock market”

If you are relying on the NYT to explain the risks of the stock market, you should not be investing in the stock market. This, the NYT should make VERY clear.

Posted by evwarsh | Report as abusive

The NYT’s coverage of FB hits close to home for me. I submitted an op-ed to the NYT the week of Facebook’s IPO. They passed on it and the piece appeared (with slight edits) in the Philadephia Inquirer the following week.

Without attempting to provide any stock market advice the op-ed, “The Death of Facebook,” is critical of FB’s long term prospects. Publishing items like this would have left NYT readers better informed of the risks of investing in the company.

The full text as published appears here:
http://community.mis.temple.edu/stevenlj ohnson/2012/06/05/predicting-the-demise- of-facebook/

Posted by StevenLJohnson | Report as abusive