Credit-Default Swaps: WSJ vs. NYT

Which story about insider trading of credit-default swaps would you rather read?

Here’s the Journal’s C1 lede:

The Securities and Exchange Commission brought its first-ever case alleging insider trading in credit-default swaps — an opaque derivative investment at the heart of the recent carnage in the financial industry.

And the NYT’s, on B3:

The Wall Street salesman sounded cryptic: “You’re listening to my silence, right?”

But those few words, spoken to a valuable client in 2006, over a recorded telephone line, have now led to a landmark case of insider trading.

Winks and nods are common currency on Wall Street, but this case, disclosed Tuesday by the Securities and Exchange Commission, is significant because it is the first to focus on the vast, murky market for credit-default swaps, considered by some to be among the most dangerous instruments of the financial crisis.

No contest.

The insider-trading case involves a Deutsche Bank salesman, Jon-Paul Rorech, who heard from his company’s bankers that a firm called VNU would be taking on more debt, and passed the tip to a client, Renato Negrin. The Journal is fine on the narrative here:

The SEC alleges Mr. Rorech encouraged Mr. Negrin to buy the VNU CDS based on this information. In discussing the deal, the two men switched from talking on a regular phone, which was recorded by one of the men’s employers — common practice on trading desks — and their cellphones, which weren’t recorded, according to the SEC’s case.

In a conversation the morning of July 14, the SEC alleges Mr. Rorech told Mr. Negrin about the new bond offering for VNU. When Mr. Negrin asked to “handicap” the likelihood of the deal, Mr. Rorech said, “You’re listening to my silence, right?”

Mr. Negrin said, “OK, I’ll call you back.” The two then held a three-minute unrecorded phone call on their cellphones. By the afternoon of July 18, Mr. Negrin had bought €20 million of credit-default swaps on VNU. By July 24, he had profited on the trade by €950,000, or $1.2 million.

But that’s still pretty bloodless. This sort of crudely illustrates what’s been lost in the Journal’s move toward straight-ahead news—with the assumption that readers are so time-pressed that they can’t be lured by an anecdotal lede, say. Readers lose color, but they also lose context. Like this, which the Times’s Zac Kouwe is very, very good to bring up:

The case also raises questions about the possible abuse of inside information by hedge funds and investment banks that have delicate information about new bond offerings and trade credit-default swap contracts. The contracts are primarily bought and sold through private negotiations between investors instead of on a public exchange, and typically bring in hefty fees for investment banks.

More on that, please.

I concede that picking two stories from competing papers ain’t exactly scientific. But I think it’s an example of where the Journal has moved (is still moving?).

It’s worth pointing out this passage from Liza Featherstone’s new piece on the Journal under Murdoch and editor Robert Thomson—hot off the presses in Columbia Journalism Review: The Magazine:

“Certain U.S. newspapers,” Thomson says, “have been designed for journalists rather than for readers.” With a chuckle, he avoided saying whether he’s talking about the Journal, but it was obvious that he was. Journalists, he says, too often choose “self-indulgence over readability. If a reader is used to the Web, he has developed a ruthless functionality in reading—just clicking on what he’s interested in.” Turning to a newspaper, Thomson says, that reader then “confronts this Neanderthal product. Taking four paragraphs to get to the point is too long. Where is the editorial empathy?”

Where’s the editorial empathy for readers who want a little more than “ruthless functionality” with their English muffin? A spoonful of sugar, as they say, helps the… wire copy go down. I’ll bet Thomson a dollar that more who scanned the Times’s lede actually read the piece than their counterparts reading the Journal’s.

Fortunately, the Journal still has some room for color. See, for instance, today’s page-one “ahed,” the institution readers kept Murdoch from killing:

On Thursday, Indian voters in Patna, capital of the unruly state of Bihar, will face a stark choice for the national Parliament: Will it be “Shotgun” or “Shaker”?

But there’s no doubt it’s a less interesting paper nowadays.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.