Okay, the last part’s not true, and if you think I’m mean, fine. But listen, the Third Front is not just another business page. It is the beating heart of The Wall Street Journal, a paper I happen to love. It is also not a, but the daily window into capitalism’s gearbox. It is the financial world’s agenda-setter, issue-definer, shareholder-defender, regulator-watcher, Wall Street-b.s.-buster, and corporate-accountability machine — written not for NYSE floorbrokers, but for plain folks in Iowa. It is indispensable, no matter how many financial sites sprout on the Web, no matter how good The Financial Times and the New York Times business page become. (And don’t worry, I’ll get to you both soon enough.)
For one thing, the Third Front employs about 35 reporters and editors. Who else can say that? And as for the talent there, well, it’s significant. These are the reporters who uncovered the corporate options-backdating scandal, Richard Grasso’s $140-million pay package at the then non-profit NYSE, the corrupt practice of investment bankers “spinning” valuable IPO shares to corporate executives who hire investment bankers, and countless other original stories. Personally, I’ve still got cleat marks on my face after competing against Monica Langley, et al, on the probe of A.I.G. in 2005 while I was on contract at The Washington Post (though I got my licks in).
But too often lately the page has felt phoned in. The “Heards” lack edge (see: “Even Now, Big Miners Dig Away”) or deal with companies that don’t matter (“Quicksilver Asks Investors to Hang In.” Quicksilver is a skateboard maker with a market capitalization of $1.4 billion, which is about what Citigroup spends annually on sushi. Its closest competitor, we are told, is the nimble yet formidable Volcom Inc. Who cares?) I found a headline that may have been written one million times, (“It’s Small World, After All,” about small stocks); unsurprising display stories (“Fine Wines No Longer Just Tempt Collectors,” about investing in wine, which is not new); or others that just feel random (“Japanese Addiction: Currency Bets”).
Yes, of course, there is excellent work: “SEC Now Takes Hard Look at Insiders’ ‘Regular’ Sales, a follow-up to the options-backdating coverage; “Subprime Game’s Reckoning Day,” predicting – accurately – growing problems in that market; “No Worries: Banks Keeping Less Money in Reserve,” a seriously useful story given today’s deteriorating credit climate; a timely profile of Timothy Geithner, the New York Federal Reserve president, who is charged with minimizing systemic risks posed by hedge funds and others outside the Fed’s jurisdiction; a look at a major oil producer’s recent stumbles, “BP’s next Slogan: `Beyond Probes.”
And — fine! — today’s section is excellent. One story — “Can Asia Control the `Hot Money?’ — looks at efforts to impose anti-meltdown controls (though I would quibble with the idea that the efforts are a “step back” from an openness trend; how about “a refinement?”). And the piece on famed vulture investor betting on a weak housing market, “Why Icahn Is Betting on WCI’s Florida Condos,” would only be of interest to every homeowner and would-be homeowner.
But my overall point is right. For instance, you cannot — you just can’t — publish run-of-the-mill market stories on the Third Front. “Stocks Slip on Housing News, Then Recover Most of Losses”; “Stocks Rise as Fresh Money Offsets Manufacturing Data.” You might as well go with: “Cubs Lose Opener, Drop Nightcap”; or “Partly Cloudy, Temps in 50s Yesterday as High Pressure Moved West to East.” This prohibition is especially important now that the Third Front runs a display ad covering the bottom right corner of the page.
Meanwhile, the Third Front cannot look itself in the mirror and say it is leading the way on executive compensation, which The New York Times has owned, and rising shareholder activism, to name a couple of obvious ones.
It’s clear resources are being spread too thin. My prescription: write less. Don’t worry about pages C2 and C3. There. McKinsey would’ve charged you a bundle for that.