Debits and Credits

Times gets debit for no Reuters credit; The Atlantic overreaches; WSJ leder chugs along, etc.

Chalk up The New York Times with a debit for not giving a credit.

The newspaper makes a small but not insignificant transgression by not name-checking a wire story in its Street Scene column.

Last week an item about Warren Buffett, bankers, and “poetic justice” appeared on the interwebs and in various newspapers following a speech on Wednesday in Toronto. CBC reported on it. Bloomberg reported on it. Reuters reported on it. The Reuters story was on the wires that afternoon with the money quote.

“It’s sort of a little poetic justice, in that the people that brewed this toxic Kool-Aid found themselves drinking a lot of it in the end,” he said in reference to some of the large investment banks that were involved in designing and marketing complex investments that have soured in recent months and have generated billions in losses.

Reuters updated with a full 500-word story with the byline Wojtek Dabrowski, which was printed in various newspapers on Thursday.

The Times, like many other outlets, had the Reuters wire story on Wednesday evening online and also featured the item, again attributed to Reuters, on its DealBook blog on its Web site.

By the time it was published in the Times’s print edition on Friday, there was no reference to Reuters or any other wire service. Appearing in its Street Scene column that runs with the sub-head, “Highlights from DealBook at nytimes.com/dealbook,” The column led with an item headlined, “Warren Buffet: What Credit Crisis?” It does not appear online, so we’ve included the entire item, as it ran in the newspaper below:

Warren Buffett: What Credit Crisis?

Warren E. Buffett has largely dodged the subprime mortgage mess.

But that is not stopping him from taking shots at Wall Street banks that helped sow the seeds of the disaster — complex mortgage investments. Many of those investments have gone bad, leaving investors and the banks with large and growing losses.

“It’s sort of a little poetic justice, in that the people that brewed this toxic Kool-Aid found themselves drinking a lot of it in the end,” Mr. Buffett said at an investment conference in Toronto this week.

But for all the angst on Wall Street, Mr. Buffett does not see a squeeze in the credit markets. ”Money is available and it’s really quite cheap,” he said.

Mr. Buffett attributes the turmoil in the financial markets to the evaporation of ”dumb money.” By this he means the investors who chased tricky investments backed by shaky home loans, as well as complex corporate debt that is now almost impossible to sell.

With the dumb money out of the market, a wide range of companies, from investment banks to bond insurers, have been left high and dry. Not that Mr. Buffett minds: Berkshire Hathaway set up its own bond insurance business last month, and he can borrow money now at more attractive interest rates. MICHAEL J. de la MERCED

On Friday, Merced told us that while the Reuters story tipped him off, he went to a Bloomberg terminal where he listened to the audio of the event and wrote from that.

“It isn’t something we’d dealt with before,” said Merced. “Will we look at it and try to form a firmer policy? Yes.”

Fair enough. Not the end of the world. But news organizations that go to the trouble and expense of staffing news events should be acknowledged.

Give credit. Otherwise it’s a debit. Get it?

We’re a little disappointed in the Atlantic this month (except for a cheeky, category-defining article making the case for women over thirty to stop thinking of settling as a bad thing and “Marry Him!”)

Another article in the March issue (but not online), “The Next Slum,” gets a debit for twisting a current, transitory event into evidence of an epochal shift in the American landscape.

The story, by Christopher B. Leinberger, which runs with the subhead, “The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements,” has a compelling lead:

Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.
At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

The problem here is, these woes are very clearly—and almost totally—caused by the housing crash that has pushed borrowers out of their homes and caused investors to mail their keys to the bank and walk away. The Atlantic would like you to think it’s because of the renewed vitality of our urban cores.

We don’t think so. The magazine quickly—and very conventionally—veers into a paean to Return to the City, well-plowed ground for journalists for many years now. This is a real phenomenon, and a welcome one.

But suggesting that suburban McMansions will be carved up into tenement buildings before too long stretches the evidence, we think. A great deal of Americans will always want the increased elbow room that only suburbs can provide them, and these less-dense landscapes are fairly easily adapted to new uses.

And if the suburban model is broken, even the Atlantic admits that a dab of good ol’ American creative destruction is already under way, transforming forlorn, inward-facing fortress malls into walkable, mixed-use “lifestyle centers.”

But developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to newer suburbs—and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life. “Lifestyle centers”—walkable developments that create an urban feel, even when built in previously undeveloped places—are becoming popular with some builders. They feature narrow streets and small storefronts that come up to the sidewalk, mixed in with housing and office space. Parking is mostly hidden underground or in the interior of faux city blocks.

Lifestyle centers, too, emerged more than a decade ago. They are, in the end, a suburban retail format, essentially a smaller shopping mall turned inside out—a nice relief from the gargantuan scale of the malls and the bleak landscape litter of the strip malls, and one that’s been written about and propounded upon for years now.

The magazine isn’t breaking any new ground with its discussion of “new urbanist” trends, and it’s overreaching big time in its predictions of how those trends will play out.

The Wall Street Journal had a timely and engaging story on the triumphant return of the American railroad.

The upgrade is part of a railroad renaissance under way across much of the U.S. For the first time in nearly a century, railroads are making large investments in their networks—adding sets of tracks, straightening curves that force engines to slow and expanding tunnels for bigger trains. Their campaign is altering the corridors of American commerce, more so than any other development since interstate highways spread to the interior.

For decades, railroads spent little on expansion, even tore up surplus track and shrank routes. But since 2000 they’ve spent $10 billion to expand tracks, build freight yards and buy locomotives, and they have $12 billion more in upgrades planned.

Since the railroads are making money for the first time in a long time, they’re attracting interest from investors (like Warren Buffett who disclosed an 11 percent stake in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.) and that translates into infrastructure investment. Another positive byproduct, the story says, is the economic investment it brings to railroad cities.

Railroads are generating development in the same way they spawned towns and industrial sites over a century ago. Warehouse complexes are popping up next to new rail yards designed to load and unload trains carrying containerized goods. Major distribution operations have opened or are planned in places like Elwood, Ill., Kansas City, Mo., and Columbus, Ohio.

The social consequences are evident in developments like AllianceTexas. In the late 1980s, Hillwood Development Co., founded by Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate, built a cargo airport outside Fort Worth, thinking that would be the best way to attract companies to 17,000 acres of land north of the city. As an afterthought, the company says, it made room for a rail yard.

The story comes with a great interactive map revealing the extent of the current building boom by comparing it to another a century earlier.

We love big-picture stories like this, especially ones with specific evidence and anecdotes that bear out its thesis. This is one of the hardest stories to do, and especially to do it at the right time.

We also wanted to give a little credit love to the Journal this week for another fantastic front-page story about the prison volunteer who helped an inmate who wooed her escape.

With details from her, her family, her husband, and collect calls from the inmate, the article shows that Murdoch hasn’t killed off the paper’s traditional “leder”—the in-depth, magazine-style pieces that you don’t find anywhere else, including magazines—at least on weekends.

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Anna Bahney is a Fellow and staff writer for The Audit