White House Watch: An Inconsequential Virus Obituary

With by one count 93,382 deaths blamed on the corona virus through Wednesday, each one a life-altering tragedy for a family, there is hardly any point chronicling the death of an inanimate process which few could care about or should.

Yet the passing of the early morning ritual of getting the jobs report, the Consumer Price Index, the GDP report and so many others out into the world consumed thousands of person hours over the years for a specialised cadre of reporters. The membership changed, the mission remained, to distil pages of abstruse numbers and dry wording into headlines, stories and analyses.

To do so within the 26 minutes or so allotted, sometimes 55 minutes, was a well-practiced art. For that reporter or reporter team that had elaborate pages of customised presentations to produce, there was the challenge of extreme focus, of the need for poise under pressure, of maintaining 100% accuracy and cogency, until the deadline arrived, a switch was pulled, and it all flowed around the world at the speed of light.

For some, there were interviews to be done on a restricted phone line to the data monks who originated the reports in the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Statisticians and economists whose lives revolve around amassing the data would patiently add the context to the numbers for reporters who had a few minutes to turn it around into readable material.

In the 1980s the process had been more relaxed. A reporter would pick up a big brown envelope from an office in the three-acre Commerce Department, walk it up the street to the Treasury Department and in a press room there, distribute the reports to those who would write them up.

Were American consumers enthused or cautious, were food and rent and used cars getting cheaper or more expensive, were jobs plentiful or scarce? Analysts reporting to board rooms and economists weighing the path of the economy would devour the numbers, ponder the context.

That filigreed watercolour scene was mostly in the imagination as the 1980s wore on. The nature of the game evolved – or devolved. The numbers distilled from thousands of answers to monthly questionnaires and tens of thousands of observations, run though massive data processing routines, pored over by specialists and then printed on paper became pockets on a Roulette wheel.

News services with exclusive access to what became highly secure dissemination venues hardly noticed at first the influx of a new breed of customers. They weren’t interested in insights into how Americans were spending or the way their earnings fluctuated or how fast the value of the dollar was shrinking. They just wanted the numbers. The numbers had morphed from knowledge nuggets into trading triggers.

As the years went by and computers which worked alongside the trading-room humans got faster, their software incredibly nuanced and sophisticated, the news services began to be able to charge more for the product of the dawn patrol of reporters.

The Roulette wheel had become a vast array of digital mechanisms that took hundreds of millions of dollars to build, which turned the numbers into guaranteed money machines for the Wall Streets of the world.

Traders were overshadowed by the physicists and literal rocket scientists who built the mechanisms for hedge funds and securities firms, the biggest banks – anyone who could afford the money generating machinery that could operate in microseconds, eking out a margin of winnings every time the government and that cadre of reporters could spew out another report.

The penny-pinching newspaper publishers who were squeezing the news services while they cut costs on the way to oblivion were being replaced by customers willing to pay much more for much less, just the numbers – machine-readable numbers. Words for them had become a quaint relic.

From words that were understandable the priority for several news services became numbers that were digestible, not by humans but by their machines that in microseconds turned the numbers into trades. Amazingly the relatively few customers for speedy numbers were willing to pay millions of dollars a year, replacing the revenue lost as hundreds of newspapers disappeared.

Some news services supplied these numbers to algorithmic  low-latency number vacuums without ever understanding how the Roulette wheel worked. Others understood very well. The millions flowed to starving news services. Dow Jones pioneered these “algo” feeds in 2006. Reuters, Bloomberg, Market News International, The Associated Press and others followed. These special customers were involved in an arms war, each cutting milliseconds and microseconds from the process. Each iteration in speed was another magnitude more costly.

The data monks became aware that something had changed, that their carefully nurtured numbers were being fed into a casino turbine and it was confusing. Was this a proper use? Something to be outlawed? True, the ultimate data customers probably were taxpayers too, but they were so secretive. And they seemed to be taking advantage of all of those who couldn’t afford the esoteric computerisation.

After an abortive attempt to understand what was happening, the government officials who controlled the output of the numbers decided a few months ago that however it worked, it wasn’t something they wanted to encourage or facilitate.

The news services protested, marshalling their remaining news customers, the newspapers and broadcasters, as the rationale to defend the status quo, to defend the presence of computers in the secure lockup rooms. The reports needed the intelligent and artful re-processing the reporters provided. Their advance look at the reports were necessary for that cogency and context.

That was all true. For those news customers the intermediaries who reordered the numbers to rank their importance and write the contextual headlines, stories and analyses still added value. But most of the freight was being paid by the casino.

The protest worked. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also spoke for the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, backed off. The reporters could keep their computers. The “lockups” could continue as is.

Then the pandemic hit. The close encounters within the packed lockup room at the Labor Department headquarters could not be tolerated. The lockups were suspended temporarily. The news services scrambled to provide a way to preserve the casino revenue. “Screen scrapers” were software that could turn the Internet postings of the numbers into material the big rich customers’ computers could digest.

It wasn’t as reliable a process as the old system. Worse, why did firms able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on hardware and software development need intermediaries? They could “scrape” the postings for themselves and do a better job at it.

Then this week, the coup de grace. Decades of data lockups, the dawn patrol showups of those reporters practiced in the speedy processing of all those dozens of government economic statistics, had ended, permanently. William Beach is the current Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It fell to him to end the marriage of news service data reporters and the markets casino. “The recent COVID-19 experience demonstrates that (the Department of Labor) can eliminate the overhead and risk of lock-up rooms altogether without degrading the quality or timeliness of media coverage,” Beach said in administering the death sentence.

Several news services that have been forced to close foreign and domestic news bureaus, cut dozens of reporters in the past year, now face a much bigger hole in their budgets. Remember the afternoon newspaper? Remember a lot of morning newspapers? Remember the old United Press International? The news services that saw those newspapers and their monthly subscriptions disappear, at least those that still exist, have become less of a societal nervous system and now get even smaller.

The decade and a half of casino revenues had helped keep them operating, adding something to the resilience of American thought, self-awareness and civil discourse while keeping the window open to the world for all those remaining newspapers and broadcasters.

The atrophy now accelerates, collateral damage of the short-sightedness of a nation that has little appreciation for what it’s losing.

In the context of the data monks, it’s “without degrading the quality or timeliness of media coverage.” In the context of a country unaware how its national and international eyes and ears are dying, maybe leave out the “without.”

OK, a footnote. Yes, there are three remaining news services that maintain customer bases tightly tied to the casino lifeline in ways that can do without the economic data reports. May they grow and prosper. None of them pretend to bureaus in every state capital, every large American city, most major world capitals. None of them are named The Associated Press. None of them are named United Press International. McLatchy filed for bankruptcy protection February 13. Look under the hoods of the national TV and cable networks and the many small news services. Count their reporters. Point made.



Colin Lambert

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