When Newspapers Get Lazy

The wsj.com home page today features, prominently, an article on fund manager Ken Heebner, who’s long bank stocks, and I can’t for the life of me work out what it’s doing there. Heebner was a media star back when he was outperforming massively, but his fund has lost more than half its value so far this year, and in any case it’s impossible to mirror what he’s doing because, as the article itself notes, Heebner is known for his "rapid portfolio turnover". In other words, you might be able to go long with him right now, but you’ll never know when he’s exited that position and moved on to something else.

I fear that this article will steer some retail investors into buying bank stocks — it is in the Personal Finance section, after all. And bank stocks, as we all should know by now, are very dangerous things. The WSJ should be providing less adulation of fund managers in general, and of Ken Heebner in particular: it does no one any good.

For really lazy journalism, however, you need to turn to the WSJ’s glossy magazine. I’m surprised at this: it comes out so infrequently that you’d think its editors have the time to really check things over. But turn to the article about hard-core adventure travel — things like six-day, 155-mile races across the Egyptian Sahara:

“Lately, the hardest thing for us has been keeping authentic adventure travel distinct from mainstream tourism,” says Chris Doyle of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, who estimates world-wide spending on real adventure-travel packages at $75 billion to $150 billion a year.

Let’s put those numbers in perspective: according to its annual earnings report, Walt Disney’s global revenues from all its parks and resorts in fiscal 2008 totalled $11.5 billion. So I’m pretty sure that Doyle was talking in millions, not billions: 10,000 people each spending $10,000 will add up to $100 million. Which means that the WSJ is three orders of magnitude off.

Alternatively, check out the little maps that accompany the little article on hot winter spots around the world. The magazine’s editorial staff is based in New York, and its editor, Tina Gaudoin, is an Englishwoman who has only recently moved here from London. So you’d think they’d be able to get those two cities right, at least. Think again: the New York map places the new Giorgio Armani Store, which is going to open on 5th Avenue and 56th Street, about 20 blocks north of that, on a residential stretch of the avenue abutting Central Park. And the London map places Somerset House somewhere in South Kensington — about three and a half miles from its actual location on the Strand.

Of course, people aren’t going to use those maps literally, to find the places in question, especially since that Armani store isn’t even scheduled to open until February. (What it’s doing in this issue of the magazine I have no idea.) But there was clearly a lack of attention to detail here.

But the worst offender of all, this weekend, is not WSJ but rather the NYT’s T magazine, and specifically a section called The Must Haves. What are this season’s must-haves?

  • A $19,992 chandelier.
  • Shoes: Pick from four different pairs, which cost $1,100, $375, $995, and $785.
  • A $1,495 puffer jacket.
  • Bikinis (yes, bikinis in December, presumably for those of us who regularly holiday to the southern hemisphere around now).
  • A $1,355 table.
  • Handbags: Another set of four. These cost $3,900, $3,775, $6,950, and $2,295.
  • Watches: Four of these, too. Costing $14,650, $20,000, $54,200, and "price on request".

On what planet is a $54,200 watch a must-have? In which economy does a $2,295 handbag qualify as cheap? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but with a bit of Googling I can tell you what "price on request" means: $126,700. And no, there’s no bling — it’s even got a rubber strap. But there is a tourbillon, which is French for "utterly useless widget which adds an extra zero onto the price".

I know that lead times for these magazines are long, but we’ve been in recession for a year now. And these kind of prices don’t generate escapist reveries, they generate revulsion and disgust. I’m sure the editors don’t care what I think, but maybe we can hope that the advertisers will start phoning up the NYT and asking them to tone things down a bit. The New York Times Company needs T magazine, which is probably its most profitable arm — it simply can’t afford this degree of cluelessness.

Update: It turns out that there’s no shortage of industry associations willing to peg total adventure-travel expenditure in the tens of billions of dollars. So WSJ wasn’t making a billions-for-millions mistake, it was just making a don’t-stop-to-think-if-the-number-makes-any-sense mistake. In order to get to Doyle’s numbers, I’m pretty sure you have to start including things which most of us would consider "mainstream tourism", like Scuba diving or renting 4-wheel-drive vehicles — things which are a world removed from the subject of the article. Which is weird, ‘cos that’s exactly what he says he’s trying not to do.

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