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April 17, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Better Than Wingo

I’ve subscribed to three newspapers in my life.  The first was the Chicago Daily News, the afternoon daily that my family read when I was a child – that long-gone broadsheet (b. 1876, d. 1978) having been a prime specimen of a population that, taken as a whole, added up to the golden age of newspapers. The second was The Boston Globe, where I was fortunate to work for more than twenty years.  For the last decade the Financial Times has arrived on my front porch six mornings a week

Not that I don’t read (online) The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post at breakfast, and buy the The New York Times at the corner store on the way to work. I have strong feelings for the strengths and weaknesses of each.  But reading without subscribing is just not quite the same. There’s something about subscribing to a printed newspaper that turns into a primary relationship. Perhaps it has to do with the porch. It inevitably becomes a frame through which to interpret the world.

So much about the FT is appealing: the simplicity of its front page (two or three items plus three or four teases to stories elsewhere in the paper); the clarity of its writing (quite remarkable on close examination); the brevity of its stories (they don’t jump from page to page); the economy of its coverage (no more than sixteen well-organized pages most days, and I’m done).

Above all, there is the editors’ cosmopolitan sense of what constitutes the news. FT reporters are usually a day ahead of their US counterparts on policy news, often a day behind on American politics, but they are interested in everything under the sun.  The weekend Life and Arts section is a window on (more of a train ride through) the worlds of people who have much the same tastes as I do – and a very great deal more money, time and knowledge. The editorial page is the most level-headed in the business. The op-ed page sometimes eludes me, with the exception of Martin Wolf, but as far as I’m concerned, nobody in newspapers possesses a more incisive and amusing voice than management columnist Lucy Kellaway.

I suppose that’s why I found myself at the famous old Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, N.H., last week.  The Institute for New Economic Thinking, organized last year by hedge fund operator George Soros and some of his friends, was having its annual meeting there. You don’t have to look very closely at INET, though, to see how much a creature of the newspaper the event is.

Thus former FT columnist Lawrence Summers, of Harvard University, showed up to kick off the institute’s inaugural dinner. Glamorous Gillian Tett, managing editor of the FT’s US edition (and author of Fool’s Gold: The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall Street Greed CorrruptedIts Bold Dream and Created a Financial Crisis)  closed out its farewell banquet in a conversation with former Fed chairman Paul Volcker and Soros himself. Betweentimes, any number of FT favorites held forth in sessions from early morning to late night: Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, Wall Street veteran Henry Kaufman, British financial regulator Adair Turner, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and historian Niall Ferguson, to mention only the most prominent. Behind them a glistering cast filled in. The only scribes from rival papers who showed up were Anatole Kaletsky, of The Times of London, and Chrystia Freeland, of Thomson Reuters (themselves former FT correspondents), and Alan Murray, of the WSJ – all of them on the program..

For the FT, then, INET is potentially an audience-building device, a little like the World Economic Forum was a decade or two ago, when the FT and its Pearson PLC stable mate The Economist went to work to turn its January meeting in Davos into a story. The NYTimes has experimented intermittently with trying to turn Clinton Global Initiative meetings each September in Manhattan  into a similar kind of a story. And the WSJ flirts periodically with the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles in May.  These editorial enthusiasms for particular forums are more subtle in their effects than Wingo, the lottery promotional game with which Rupert Murdoch nearly doubled the circulation of the New York Post to around a million between 1976 and 1983. But their overall aim is the same: to bring readers of a certain sort into the tent.

Give Soros credit:  he knows what makes hacks tick.  The food was good, the wine was poured throughout the long meals, the wireless ubiquitous.  There were stacks of pink papers in the lobby. I have my doubts, though, as to whether INET has yet entered a virtuous circle, despite the boost the FT has been giving it.  A case in point:  a long monologue on INET’s campaign to reform the economics curriculum was delivered by Robert Skidelsky, a very good biographer of John Maynard Keynes, but no authority on the economics that has come since.

Meanwhile, various “partner bloggers” were paid to write about an event at which some of them might have better been speaking  – the young historians of thought in particular, since they really do know something about how curricula change. (Blogger/speaker J. Bradford DeLong, of the University of California at Berkeley, was the  exception who underscored the rule.) Failures of judgment like these don’t bode well for a program that hopes to influence the way economics is done. The FT’s Wolf, in a promotional video, pronounced a benediction of sorts when he praised the conference’s wonderful agenda on current affairs, quickly adding that  “the truth is that transformations in economic thinking itself come from often young people, probably people we’ve never heard of, people who aren’t here here, who are not yet grandees, or people who are outsiders, who are in some ways really  revolutionary thinkers.”

I heard about half of the INET sessions.  In every case, I marveled at the forceful personalities: not a dud among them.  On the other hand, none had more to say than what might be contained in a typical 740-word op-ed piece.  All were masters of the form.  No wonder, then, that driving home, I dwelt on my preference for the newspaper itself.  The limit there is four a day. Like Wingo, the INET conference was a sideshow to the main event, which remains the printed page.

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