Many factors contributed to this success. But the FT’s string of M&A scoops during that era, many by Lewis, helped. In 1999, Lewis and the FT shocked the business-media world by revealing Exxon Corp.’s plans to buy Mobil Corp., citing sources close to both companies. The deal, eventually valued at $81 billion, was a record at the time. After Exxon-Mobil, deal scoops became a major selling point in FT marketing. A 2000 Pearson press release announcing the opening of the FT’s new US headquarters cited the Exxon-Mobil scoop and “countless other high-profile mergers” as evidence of the paper’s prowess in breaking “stories of international and domestic import.” In a 2001 cover story on the FT’s rise in BusinessWeek (“The Financial Times Takes on the World”), the paper’s US managing editor at the time, Robert Thomson (who now holds that job at The Wall Street Journal), pointed to the paper’s success at wresting deal scoops from the Journal. Cheekily, he boasted that while the Journal was good at covering ‘‘midsize companies doing middling deals in the Midwest,” the FT was capturing the more glamorous global deals. “It’s a Lexus-Taurus thing,” he said.
A successful run on the M&A beat became a career launching pad, too. Lipin, after a promotion at the Journal, parlayed his success and considerable contacts in the M&A world into a lucrative post running the US operations of Brunswick Group, a corporate communications firm. Nikhil Deogun, who succeeded Lipin and enjoyed his own impressive run, would rise to deputy managing editor at the paper; he is now a top news executive at CNBC. And after promotions within the FT, Lewis rose within British journalism circles to become the youngest-ever (at thirty-seven) editor in chief of The Daily Telegraph in 2006; he is now an executive member of the Management and Standards Committee at News Corp. Faber remains one of CNBC’s top personalities.
Few business journalism careers have been as meteoric as that of Andrew Ross Sorkin, who through a series of deal scoops almost single-handedly propelled The New York Times to new prominence in business news. In 2001, according to a 2009 profile in New York magazine by Gabriel Sherman, Sorkin developed the idea for DealBook, the then-innovative idea of a free, e-mailed newsletter of major merger news of the day. Within months, Sorkin more than doubled his hoped-for goal of 30,000 subscribers. Today it has more than 200,000. Before he was thirty-one, he was awarded a section-front column and made an assistant editor of business and finance news. Last year, Sorkin added a new job: in addition to editing DealBook, he is co-anchor of Squawk Box on CNBC. It makes sense.
Sorkin, in the New York profile, shrugged off the charge that he is too close to his sources and conceded that his style is not adversarial. “I don’t come to the table with an ax to grind—that helps me,” he says. At another point he says: “I think to the extent that I’ve been able to get inside the room, it’s a function of hopefully coming to the table and being fair and open. But also coming to the table and being sufficiently skeptical, but not cynical.”
But the question is not whether a reporter is either skeptical or cynical; the question is, About what?
To complain that a deal reporter is too close to his sources is like complaining that a baseball player’s bat is too close to the ball. The idea is to connect with the ball, just as the idea of deal reporting is to get close to a source and get the scoop. Deal reporting is perhaps as transactional a relationship as any in journalism. It often involves an intricate negotiation between reporter and source. Being close to sources is, essentially, the point.
I argued last year (in “The Price of Admission,” CJR, March/April 2010, my review of Sorkin’s financial-crisis best-seller, Too Big to Fail), that this access/accountability duality should be understood as nothing more than what it is: a division of labor. Both are good. But they’re different.
As the effects of the great crash grind on, however, it is time to rebalance that division, and to rethink our idea of the financial-news “revolution”—a term that has proved more literal than Fast Company may have realized a decade ago. Far from marking a break with the past, as the magazine implied, the rush to provide narrow, market-serving news was a revolving of the wheel of history a full turn, back to business journalism’s narrow origins as messenger service between market participants. What Dow, Jones, and Bergstresser did with a special stylus and a platoon of messenger boys, CNBC-ized news does with modern tools.