Audit Notes: more NOLA rumblings, Journatic, well-squawked

A new buyer emerges in New Orleans, Quick and Sorkin did good, etc.

—Can we agree at this point that Advance Publications’s attempt to sell its plans for dramatic newsroom cuts and ramped up online news production at the Times-Picayune as a bold leap into the future—in effect, putting digital lipstick on a hamster—is not going over so well down in the Crescent City?

First, there was the generalized uproar. Then, the likes of Archie Manning, Wynton Marsalis, and other notables demand the owning Newhouse family change its plan or sell the paper. Then, the City Council sticks its nose in. Now, David Vitter, Senator Very Serious Sin himself, fires off a letter demanding a sale, while—literally—insulting Advance’s dreary Website,

The money graf is here, via The Gambit:

Second, you have a terribly inadequate digital platform which has actually gotten worse since your announcement. The new format has been universally panned (and I agree). And this is reflected in the numbers. As a single member of our Congressional delegation, I actually have far more Facebook followers than your whole enterprise.

And I have more Facebook friends than you. Boom!

What the uproar shows, if nothing else, is that the plan is so unpopular that pols now feel they can score points off the newspaper chain by opposing it. But the opposition also reflects, I think, the public’s growing sense that change, while inevitable, doesn’t necessarily have to take this particular shape, a point reinforced by the growing que of potential buyers for the paper—now suddenly including the owner of the New Orleans Saints a
and Hornets

Stay tuned. The Advance plan may not be as inevitable or necessary as some would have you believe.

—Kudos to the Chicago Tribune staffers who signed an letter to management expressing concern about the company’s continued relationship with Journatic, the troubled news outsourcing concern found to have been involved in false bylines and datelines and plagiarism:

As employees concerned about both the reputation of the Tribune and its future, we have been disturbed not just by the relationship with Journatic but also a lack of detail about how this relationship came about. We also want to know what form, if any, it will take going forward.

The whole letter is on Romenesko:

—Tongues are still wagging and heads are still spinning over Sandy Weill’s Nixon-to-China moment yesterday, when he, more or less out of nowhere, explicitly called for breaking up the big banks. From the architect of the financial supermarket and the self-described “Shatterer off Glass-Steagall,” this was the stunner that everyone says it was and deserved paged one treatment.

Now, the search is on for ulterior motives, everything from carrying on a feud with the protégée he fired, Jamie Dimon, to trying to boost the value of bank shares.

But circling back to the original broadcast, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” hosts Becky Quick and Andrew Ross Sorkin deserve some credit for the way they handled this news bomb. It’s clear they were as stunned as anyone, but they kept their wits about them.

Watching the tape (below), you see Weill on the set, talking normal big-shot talk, about how great and important American banks are and all that. He veers into some interesting areas, the importance of keeping leverage under control, putting derivatives on exchange, not allowing stuff off balance sheet—all good, surprisingly lefty, actually, but nothing wildly unexpected. And it turns out to be throat-clearing. Quick is about to ask another question, and Weill, clearly a man with a plan, raises a finger and preses ahead, dropping the bomb in the middle of a soliloquy:

What I think mostly is there is such a feeling among people, among regulators, among the political system all over the world against the banking system and i don’t think that’s going to change so soon. So I think what we should probably do (pause) is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks maybe commerce loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be too big to fail. If they want to hedge what they’re doing in their investments, let them do it in a way that it can be mark-to-market so they’re not going to be hit and have a creative system where the financial industry can again attract the best and brightest young people like think-the-do in silicon valley and like they’re doing in engineering so that we can lead innovation that’s necessary and entrepreneurship that’s necessary….

Etc., etc.

Say wha’?

I know it’s obviously news, and the implications were plain, but Quick and Sorkin have to do it in real time. They give him every chance to walk it back.

Quick: That’s a pretty radical idea, breaking up investment banks and banks. Are you suggesting going back and really breaking these companies up?

Weill: That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

Quick here suppresses an inchoate sound that I take to be the equivalent of, “holy f@king sh!t,” but moves on smoothly to the next obvious question, “The question becomes Glass-Steagall. You’re almost referring to bring Glass-Steagall in some respects.” Sorkin then asks, wait, what about the financial supermarket, which is the next right question, and the interview proceeds from there.

I’m thinking it wasn’t as easy as they made it look, particularly at that hour of the morning.

Watch it here:

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , ,