Photo: Lisa Du, Business Insider
Consumers of news demand three things:
Suppliers of news, however, face a trilemma, as they usually have to sacrifice one in order to produce the other two.
You can have high-quality content that’s very accurate, but it will generally take a while before it arrives (most newspapers, magazines, etc.).
You can have cheap speed, but the accuracy may be dubious (think: all the headlines constantly blasting across twitter or other quasi-amateur news services.).
And you can have high speed and high accuracy, but it’s not going to be done cheaply.
That last category is occupied most prominently by the Bloomberg Speed Desk, a mindblowing operation that spits out real-time news headlines from all over the world, 24/7 to customers who rent their fabled terminals.
For those unfamiliar with operation, imagine looking at a scroll up-to-the-millisecond headlines covering everything from earnings releases to central bank interventions to Supreme Court decisions and political developments.
Here are some recent examples of its success:
- It was the Bloomberg Speed Desk that first flashed that Washington Post was reporting that Rick Santorum was dropping out of the GOP primary, even though The Washington Post hadn’t put the story online yet.
- It was the Bloomberg Speed Desk that first correctly reported the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision.
- In August, Bloomberg saw that the National Association of Realtors had published its monthly Existing Home Sales report before the NAR itself even knew it had put it out.
Headlines come out looking like this:
*WAL-MART WON’T CARRY AMAZON PRODUCTS BEYOND EXISTING INVENTORY
And if you think the web is fast at reporting, say, the monthly job reports, be assured that the web has nothing on Bloomberg’s speed desk.
As a connoisseur of high speed news, I was eager to learn more about this operation.
Photo: Business Insider
So I recently spent an hour sitting with and talking to the main genius behind the operation, Kevin Reynolds North, America Managing Editor for the Speed Desk and First Word.Reynolds is a 20-year Bloomberg veteran, who sits in front of a huge bank of four, glistening vertically-oriented monitors.
One of his monitors is a feed that’s capturing all the major newswires in real time.
He communicates with his team using a headset, and on his desk he keeps a digital clock that lets him and his team prepare for rushes — corporate news tends to break at the top and the bottom of the hour, and at this moment, everyone goes into battle stations, ready to grab anything that hits the wires, or goes up on the SEC.
Reynolds walks into work every day with one mission: “make money for his clients.”
He does this by allowing Bloomberg subscribers (AKA: traders and bankers at every corner of the financial world) know about news before anyone else does.
“We measure wins and losses down to the hundredth of a second,” says Reynolds. “We have to deliver.”
In the wake of some notable reporting SNAFUS by major news orgs, I was eager to know how Bloomberg avoided getting things wrong, given the premium on speed. After all, whereas there were no real negative repercussions of CNN’s SCOTUS screwup, Bloomberg terminal users literally control with their keyboards, trillions of dollars worth of wealth.
What’s obvious, when talking to Reynolds, is how deeply he sees the relationship between his customers’ experience, and his own ability to make his mortgage payment.
Also: His employees are top notch. Former traders, World Bank employees, and lawyers are among those scanning every bit of news to make sure that all relevant details are covered in a timely manner.
See, incredibly deep knowledge is crucial to timely and relevant, top-notch headlinesmanship.
Reynolds walked me through some of his favourite press releases of all time to show the depths that companies will go to to bury unwelcome news. He’s seen it all. Medical companies might disguise a bad clinical trial by first spotlighting some other unrelated good clinical result. Someone untrained in reading these releases might easily punch out a headline that completely mis-conveys bad news for a company. Some companies will hide a warning on earnings deep below the contact information on a press release. Reynolds says that every speed desk writer knows to read every release down to the bottom of the page, and that if a bombshell is buried down at the bottom, it should be caught within 30 seconds, far faster than any news organisation will get to it.
Reynolds is able to immediately recall and bring up his favourite press releases of all time.
Here’s an example…
In 2001, a company called Repligen announced results of a study on a drug relating to autism.
It wrote what at first looked like a great result:
Multi-dose Therapy Produces Statistically Significant Improvement in Symptoms of Autism Using Parental Clinical Global Impression Scale
NEEDHAM, Mass., April 4 /PRNewswire/ — Repligen Corporation (Nasdaq: RGEN – news) announced today initial results from a Phase 2 clinical trial of human synthetic secretin in young children with autism. The double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of three administrations of secretin or a placebo at three week intervals in autistic children. An initial analysis indicates that secretin produced a statistically significant improvement in autism symptoms as measured with a parental Clinical Global Impression Scale (p = 0.02).
“Statistically significant improvement in autism symptoms”, that’s great news, right?
Well it turns out that the Parental Clinical Global Impression Scale is just what it sounds like, a measure of drug efficacy based on the impression of parents of children with autism.
But deeper down in the press release, the bad news was revealed
A principle parent-based evaluation was the Clinical Global Impression Scale (CGI), an assessment of a patient’s behavioural changes from baseline. A CGI is based on a 7 point scale in which 1 = “very much improved” and 7 = “very much worse”. The parental CGI showed a statistically significant improvement in the secretin-treated group versus the placebo-treated group (p = 0.02). In a responder analysis, a total of 12 patients (18%) were rated as 1= “very much improved” in the secretin group versus 3 (5%) in the placebo group, a difference which is statistically significant (p = 0.02). There were a total of 44 patients rated as either “very much” or “much” improved (CGI = 1 or 2). Of this group, 28 were secretin-treated and 16 received placebo (p = 0.09).
A principle rater-based evaluation and the primary endpoint for the trial was the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS). CARS score changes in the secretin-treated group were not significantly different compared to the placebo group.
Ah, on the more important “Childhood Autism Rating Sale,” score changes were not significantly different than those on the placebo.
When you understand that the Bloomberg Speed Desk are trained to instantly avoid press release traps like this, you get why they nailed the SCOTUS Obamacare decision.
By the way: Shares of Repligen fell heavily the next day.
In response to one company that buried a bombshell below the contact information at the bottom of the release, Reynolds says: “I was in awe.”
Photo: Business Insider
The sheer volume of headlines his team process is amazing. In about 40 minutes of watching him, 200 headlines went by including the latest data on auto sales in Pakistan (they were down big) instantly punched in by a Bloomberg reporter in Pakistan, who follows that news as closely as American reporters might cover the jobs data.And if you think that the internet has killed your attention span, then feel pity for Reynolds: “I have no attention span… by the time I leave here, someone has to explain comic books to me.”
In keeping with his somewhat twisted sense of humour he adds: “And I’m blonde already.”
Having been there 20 years, Reynolds has seen some amazing news periods, but the two that stand out for him were 9/11 and Lehman Weekend.
On 9/11/2001, the speed desk flashed more red headlines (important headlines are highlighted in red) than on other day, and he was at the office for 24 hours straight: “I remember doing headlines and crying. That was… that was crazy.”
On the peak weekend of the financial meltdown, Reynolds slept on the floor “That night you had Merrill and Lehman. AIG was the next morning at about six.”
Of course, it’s not all on Reynolds, as he eagerly explains. He insists that he’s the dumbest person on his team, explaining “I have a bunch of people that make me look awesome.”
In fact, the Speed Desk draws on 2300 reporters in 136 bureaus worldwide.
It’s not a cheap operation, but it is simply the best in the world.
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