NYT’s Norris transforms humdrum market story

May 7, 2010

What a great example of financial writing from the New York Times’ Floyd Norris, who lifts the normally humdrum market story to new heights:

Combine one part nervous traders, one part Greek crisis and one part trader error. Stir in one part central bank complacency. Bring to boil. Panic.

Read the full story here.


What’s with Business Day and the “internet thing”?

February 12, 2010

Business Day is a great newspaper and a must-read for me every day. Strong on news, great on opinion and analysis – but boy, when is it going to move into the digital age?

More than three months ago, editor Peter Bruce announced the newspaper’s new online strategy. But nothing has changed: the website remains a mess. Still having Monday’s column by your editor as the headline piece on your opinion and analysis page on Friday is no good. And if you are going to blog, then the least you should do is post from time to time. After promising readers a daily blog, Bruce last posted on December 13, and some other staff writers seemed to have thrown in the towel after just one attempt. What’s more, there is no information about the writers on their blogs, and the blogs are in now way mainstreamed as part of the newspaper’s offering to readers. It is as if someone decided to tack on staff blogs, and then forgot about them. Shoddy.

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Is this Business Day’s best?

October 22, 2009

In my previous post, I said that Business Day “regurgitated” Anglo American’s statement on the company’s far-reaching restructuring, which included axing two senior South African executives. Turns out I was being charitable to Business Day. The story on Business Day Online was in fact the statement from Anglo American, verbatim. The “story” was still on the website at 11:30pm.

In the meantime, competitors such as Fin24.com and Bloomberg News have killed the story. There will be nothing left for Business Day’s print edition tomorrow.

If this is the best Business Day, South Africa’s premier business daily,  could do on a story of great importance for South Africa, the newspaper has to start thinking seriously about its online presence.

Good and bad business journalism about the Anglo American restructuring

October 22, 2009

Anglo American’s restructuring provided examples what business journalism should and shouldn’t be. Business Day’s online coverage simply regurgitates the press release, while Bloomberg News provides context, explains why the restructuring is taking place, and explores the implications – including the dimsissal of two senior South African executives.

Business Day’s lead:

Anglo American has announced a number of changes across its businesses to create a more streamlined management structure and further focus the Group on its core mining portfolio.

Seven commodity business units are being created, with management teams located in the area of core geographic focus for the business unit and responsible for operational performance and project delivery. These are (etc., etc.,you get the picture….)

That is simply not good enough if Business Day wants to compete in the digital age.

Here’s how Bloomberg played the story:

Anglo American PLC said Thursday it plans to sell off a handful of businesses, oust three top managers and reorganize its management structure as the mining giant looks to focus on a core portfolio of commodities.

The announcement comes a week after rival Xstrata PLC walked away from a proposed merger of the two companies and amid continuing speculation the miner will renew its offer if shareholders think Anglo American is underperforming.


Anglo American also said Thursday it would reorganize and eliminate a layer of management, moves that will cost Philip Baum, CEO of Anglo Ferrous Metals; Ian Cockerill, head of Anglo Coal; and Russell King, chief strategy officer, their jobs.

The restructuring is a big story for South Africa. Although based in London these days, Anglo remains the granddaddy of South African companies, one of the biggest listed on the JSE and one of the country’s largest private-sector employers. Why, then, did our most important local business publication miss the real story, which is the dismissal of the South African management team?

Both Business Day Online and Bloomberg News were working to tight deadlines, so lack of time can’t be an excuse.

(Disclosure: I worked for Bloomberg as a South African correspondent from 2000 to 2004.)

PS. Fin24.com also got it spot-on:

ANGLO American, the R373bn mining business which recently survived a merger attempt by rival Xstrata, is slashing layers of management in a bid to drive costs down and streamline the business. It has also set out plans to divest from assets deemed non-core.

 Among the management casualties are Ian Cockerill, the former Gold Fields chief executive who more recently headed up Anglo’s coal division, and Philip Baum, the acting chief executive of the South African business. Russell King is also leaving the company.

Fin24.com’s  coverage actually was better in some ways than Bloomberg’s, in that it confirmed that Baum and Cockerill were leaving the company and not just being shoved sideways. But Fin24.com got Baum’s position wrong: he was (until today) chief executive of Anglo American Ferrous Metals. His portfolio is being sold off (Scaw Metals) and divvied up between others (the SA and Brazilian iron ore operations).

Don’t blame media for Semenya tragedy

September 11, 2009

I feel desperately sorry for Caster Semenya, and outraged at the way the IAAF and Athletics South Africa have handled this matter. But I fail to understand why everybody seems to be lambasting the “Australian media” for breaking the story that she has internal male sex organs, as if there is some giant media conpsiracy afoot to deny South Africa’s star athlete the glory due to her. News24.com’s Victoria Guedes goes so far as to apologise for being a journalist! “I would hope,” Guedes writes, “that if I were a news hound in an office in Australia who got hold of the information about Caster’s ambiguous gender, I would think twice about leaking a sensational story that could ruin someone’s life through no fault of their own.”

Oh come on! The Australian journalist who obtained the information and published it was doing his (or her?) job. Any journalist worth her salt would have run the story. It is of immense public interest, given the speculation and politicisation surrounding the case. The IAAF official who leaked the information to an Australian journalist, however, was committing a serious breach of confidentiality, and should bear all the blame for ruining her life, if that in fact transpires. Athletics South Africa should take a long, hard, look at itself too, because it simply hasn’t done enough to prepare Semenya for the storm that awaits. If some media reports are to be believed, ASA has refused to put the IAAF in contact with Semenya to discuss the results of her “gender tests”.

The media are not to blame this time, I’m afraid.

Latest in financial instruments: CDOs (collateralized death obligations)

September 7, 2009

Fresh out of credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgage bonds, Wall Street’s financial wizards have found a new way to make money. According to the New York Times, banks are planning to buy life insurance policies from elderly people who need cash, then package them into bonds that are resold to investors. The investors, in effect, buy the income stream from policies paying out when people die. Call them collateralized death obligations if you will.

Wall Street will make fat fees from packaging, selling and then trading those “bonds”. But here’s the catch: “The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money,” according to the New York Times. Whoa. Knowing what financial traders are prepared to do to make money – remember Enron’s energy traders shouting: “Burn, baby, burn!” as California bush fires annihilated power lines, creating shortages that sent energy prices soaring? – I’m not sure that is such a good idea. How long before some wizz hedge fund manager thinks of bumping Grandma to boost his quarterly returns?

Teaching economics journalism: Why? What? Who for?

September 6, 2009


(Paper presented at “Journalism Education and Training: the Challenges”. Conference, Department of Journalism, 16 – 18 October 2008, Stellenbosch, South Africa)


A recent survey of South African business editors revealed a need for specialist training of business journalists (Rumney 2008). But editors held widely differing views about the focus and form of training, while none offered a coherent vision for the further education and training of their staff. This raises important questions about the relationship between educational institutions offering economics journalism courses and the business media. What do we teach? Whose interests do we serve? An approach which simply attempts to replicate current practice runs the risk of turning economics journalism education into a commodity, with the business media as the consumer. What about the interests of society, and of the educational institution itself? This paper argues for an approach that attempts to produce reflexive journalists who are able to practice their craft, but also to question and challenge accepted practices and procedures and reflect on the role and effects of their work. It sees journalism teaching as a form of social intervention that has the potential to change the way journalism is practiced. The challenge is to design a curriculum that not only straddles the theory/practice divide, a common challenge in journalism education, but that also accommodates the imperative simultaneously to teach and to question prevailing practice.


The turmoil in financial markets over the past five weeks has focused attention on economics journalism[2] as never before. The credit crisis, bank failures, government bail-outs, stock market crashes and the deepening global recession have played themselves out day after day, relentlessly, on television, in newspapers, on the radio, in the blogosphere and on the internet – and not only in specialist financial or business media, but in mainstream news bulletins, current affairs programmes and newspapers.

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