Maven: No Ambiguity in Deal Coverage

Let HBO present things mysteriously, but don't leave investors in the dark.
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Last night's Sopranos ended on a brilliantly ambiguous note. I will not be mirroring that skill this morning, because The Business Press Maven is neither as brilliant nor complex when it comes to the revolting subject of coverage of potential mergers. I simply, as you know, want to see a lot of it whacked. Phil Leotardo-style.

Crunch its head in a wheel has been my bloodsucker's take. The now infamous, thinly sourced (and "thin" is putting it kindly)

New York Post

story on an impending deal between

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

might prove the most vulgar example of this genre, with the intellectually dishonest way it confused readers about the timeframe of any talks, plus their scale.

It left readers asking, is this an earth-shaking merger we're talking about or, by contrast -- with apologies to Johnny Boy Soprano -- some squeaky little gerbil of a joint venture? Moreover, were these talks ongoing, moving toward potential consummation, or was this old news being dressed up as new news? If you follow the latter in your investing, poor you.

Since time immemorial, as Tony might say, companies have had sit downs with each other. Only recently, however, has every pork chop-sized conversation, whether still live or swimming with Big Pussy, been treated like legitimate merger talk. The sort of bucket shops that Christopher once ran couldn't ask for more.

So what should coverage of maybe-sorta deals look like? Let me present Monday morning's Parisi twin coverage on the GE/Microsoft discussions about bidding for

Dow Jones

(DJ)

.

First up, notice the correct tense (read: the past) in the headlines.

The Wall Street Journal

: "GE, Microsoft Discussed Buying Dow Jones."

The New York Times

: "NBC Studied Dow Jones Bid With Microsoft."

So how did those Microsoft/Yahoo! stories, which also were about old business, compare?

Reuters

: In fine journalistic tradition, the service followed the

Post's

"coverage" thusly: "Microsoft eyeing deal to buy Yahoo--reports."

Eyeing. Present tense, with, I might add, some flirtatious connotations. And fuhgetaboutit about merely "eyeing" a deal, the

Post

had gone all Bada Bing's back room on us with a headline with heavier connotations: "Bill's Hard Drive."

Talk about implying a deal's consummation!

I don't want to press the point with the subtlety of a cleaver, so I'll merely leave you with the pair of leads from today's stories in the

WSJ

and

NYT

. They make clear what those Microsoft/Yahoo! stories do not: time frame, scope of deal and, to the extent they can, how close anonymous sources were/or weren't to the sit down.

The Wall Street Journal

: "General Electric Co. and Microsoft Corp. were in discussions in recent weeks to combine Dow Jones & Co. with some portions of GE's NBC Universal, parrying a bid by News Corp., but the two sides couldn't reach an agreement, according to people briefed on the discussions."

The New York Times

: "General Electric's NBC unit and Microsoft explored making a joint bid for Dow Jones but decided against it a week ago, a person close to NBC and Microsoft said yesterday."

If you can pretend you are Jackie Jr. for a moment and let me sit you down for some fatherly advice, let it be that if you are going to follow articles about company talks, make sure they conform to the

Journal

and

Times

models, not the

Post

/

Reuters

sorts. And be good to my daughter.

Of course, complimenting even a portion of the business media makes it feel like ginger ale in my skull. So let's end with some beefs.

Finally, in a big, scary looking article from

The Times of London

, we are told that the market will... fluctuate. "The battering suffered by the US Treasury bond market at the end of last week, when it endured its worst one-day losses for three years, may be followed by fresh turmoil, strategists and economists fear." And how many toes and fingers do you need to count all these fearful strategists and analysts. Well, there are three.

The key technical indicator of the end of the private-equity market bull rocket is --uh, David Robinson, the retired center from the San Antonio Spurs. At least according to an only slightly-tongue in cheek

Wall Street Journal

article.

Speaking of the

Journal

, I need your help on deciphering one of the most confusing articles I have read.

Journal

editors must be spending all their time with Dr. Melfi, trying to get to the bottom of their latent fear of media moguls, because they sure missed the whole flawed premise of this article, called

"Why Investors Look Past China's Slide

." It's about why investor reaction to the drop in Chinese equity prices in late winter and their nonreaction now makes sense. "What's different now?" The Journal asks. But the point is, nothing is different. Read it. Tell me if anything in place then was not in place now. I wrote at the time that the

reaction was way overblown. I don't think anything has changed and I don't think the article makes the case that anything has.

You want confused? You should have seen my face when I read it. You haven't seen a look of bigger confusion wash over someone's face since you saw Tony watch those ducks fly off.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

click here

to send him an email.