Business journalism's penalty box is filling up. There was the media's lemminglike reaction to the bogus "news" on
a couple of weeks ago. Now the upcoming edition of
The Wall Street Journal
cuts deals that leave readers lacking all the available information.
Following up on the stir after the
New York Times
got information on a proposed merger between
, the magazine alleges in its October issues that the
routinely promises companies involved in a merger that, in exchange for the "scoop," it will refrain from seeking "comments from outside sources."
The magazine quotes a spokesman from
who says he struck such a deal with a
reporter when the company was about to make a deal to be acquired by
in late March. (The deal ultimately fell apart). The spokesman said that in exchange for news of the deal, the
agreed to contact only people on a preapproved list, "helpfully provided by the company," according to
One can argue that in the old days, before the bull-market bug spread across America, much of this back-room dealing really didn't matter. If a reporter sold out a bit of control for a scoop, well, then the scoop took precedence.
Over the past five years, that equation has changed. And while it makes us uneasy tossing stones at competitors, the simple truth is that with less-sophisticated investors playing stocks, the analysis and comment provided by third-parties can be invaluable in evaluating whether to pursue an investment in the stocks involved.
The article also says that in five
merger scoops from May through July, one or more of the companies involved in the deals confirmed they gave the paper a "heads-up on the condition that the paper restrict its reporting."
Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger, however, says that in those stories -- including the TriZetto-IMS Health item -- the paper did not agree to restrict the people contacted in the reporting of the stories. A spokesman for the
declined to comment without having seen the story.
story quotes heads of other news organizations such as
The Daily Deal
as saying they wouldn't agree to such deals (
also has a policy of not making such agreements).
That brings us to the larger issue. In the wake of the Emulex hoax a few weeks ago, the expanding business media are faced with the same question: Is the information worth more to readers when it arrives first or when it is fully reported and put in the proper context?
Scoops, however, are the Holy Grail of journalists. And while they bring us stature among our peers and authority with our audience, that gilt is then sought by companies, analysts, bankers, lawyers and even the butcher and baker if they happen to be doing a deal. That's where the deal making comes in.
As the Journal's Steiger said: The more people you tell about a news item, the more likely that information is to end up in the hands of a competing publication. Then the scoop is gone.
Now, maybe deal making is a lesser evil to rumor mongering. We generally trust information in the
more than most of what we read on any number of Web sites, industry trade publications or emails that inexplicably end up in our in-boxes.
What will the average reporter sacrifice for a scoop? Some read entire stories back to the companies involved; others go easy on them, hoping to keep the pipeline open for future exclusives.
Unfortunately, there is no way to police all reporting practices, especially in a time when we can barely determine if a press release is authentic. It's not a disclosure issue. It's not a legal issue. It's simply an ethics issue, and a set of standards likely to get bounced around even more on the horns of this bull market.