"There is a perception that over the last 10 years or so," said One of The Most Quotable Members of the Industry at his (hopefully temporary) farewell party last week, "that The Bond Buyer is no longer an industry paper. That it sensationalizes in order to sell papers. That it will go a ways to get in a dig at the industry. That even in an obit, you won't just say a guy died, you'll say he had AIDs."
This sort of statement, of course, asks no response. The man saying it just wanted, as humorist George Ade might have said, to Make an Observation. The way to handle this, in a crowded room that had fallen quiet as "the guys from The Bond Buyer' walked in, was just to say, in best stiff-upper-lip sergeant-major fashion, "Right, then. Noted. On we go, lads."
But I have been at the newspaper for the entire time in question, and can answer the charges, such as they are.
To begin with the most direct. We always try to put in the cause of death in an obituary, just like that other exemplar of scandal, The New York Times. It is just what newspapers do.
When a staggering ancient keels over, it's not always possible to pin down one reason, of course; and most people don't mind. But self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head are another matter, especially when the subjects are in their prime.
As for AIDS, The Bond Buyer only mentioned AIDs as a cause of death in one instance, and then only because the victim asked that it be mentioned, after he died, in the manner of making a statement.
But in the future, if it is listed as the cause of death -- and more often it is not, since complications of the disease, such as pneumonia, are frequently the direct culprits -- we will run it with obituaries. Because that is what newspapers do.
'Trade Paper' No More
The larger question raised by my friend is, in fact, one of tone. I decided to go back a few years and check out one of those old "industry" Bond Buyers to compare them with what we do now.
On Monday, June 25, 1973, the newspaper led with its "Week in Advance" column, typically written by rookies since that's a good way to learn the market. I wrote quite a few. This one was done by Denis McFeely, who now runs the advertising department, and was headlined, "Tax-Free Volume Hits Year's Highest Weekly Total at $816,737,858" (we did not believe in rounding in those days).
Other stories of the day included The Daily Bond Buyer appointing a new editor, John Winders, who would hold the job until 1981; Moody's lowering Philadelphia School District to Ba from Baa; and "Several More Banks Raise Prime Lending Rate to 7 3/4%."
Nothing all that remarkable there. The next day, the newspaper carried stories on New York City selling $650 million in notes at 4.99%; Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signing a bill creating the New York City Sports Authority; and Halsey, Stuart & Co. being named financial adviser to the Washington Suburban Sanitary District.
And so on. I can tell you right now, being the only person on earth who has read 100 years of Bond Buyers for this centennial year, that not that much happened.
For one thing, the market of the 1970s, and before, was not the market of today. Volume was measured in the tens of billions, not hundreds of billions; the market was mostly straight vanilla; and it was mostly competitively bid. There were no such things as black box deals, or structurings that skirted tax laws; there were fewer people in the business; and the business was less competitive.
But for another thing, and as I wrote last week, the newspaper in the 1960s and 1970s was just starting to regear back to being a journalistic enterprise, not just the municipal bond man's shopper that it was from the 1920s through the 1950s, when it was a real industry paper.
It takes time to build and train a staff. And it takes time to craft a newspaper with a reputation for accuracy, journalistic excellence, good writing, and, most of all, independence. What you read in The Bond Buyer is not tainted by fear or favor, which is why you can believe what you read in The Bond Buyer.
In many ways, the newspaper you are holding now has more in common with The Daily Bond Buyer of 1891 than it does with the newspaper of 1921, 1931, 1941, and 1951. Founder William F.G. Shanks (1837-1905) was a professional newspaperman, who covered the Civil War and who helped break the Tweed Ring in New York City. He was, in fact, warned by Boss William Marcy Tweed to carry a revolver and to not go home the same way two nights running. I have no doubt that he did the former, and probably not the latter, judging from his crusty and sometimes downright ferocious writing.
One of my young reporters passed along one of his own favorite, and indeed very Shanksian, journalistic maxims -- "It is the job of a newspaper to disagree with everything, disbelieve everyone, and generally raise hell." Newspaperman H.L. Mencken put it a different way when he wrote, "The function of a newspaper in a democracy is to stand as a sort of chronic opposition to the reigning quacks."
This is not to say that we consider ourselves in any way adversaries of any of those in the many-faceted market we cover, although all newspapermen tend to get a little bit cynical in the face of constant lies and half-truths, which are the institutional hazards they face in their quest for The Story.
Finally, sensationalism might sell some other metropolitan tabloids, but not one that sells for $11 a copy, $1,650 a year, and that is not available on the newsstand.
And, in fact, there are lots of things we choose not to carry, often in respect for someone's feelings. We say someone resigned when actually they were sacked for trading losses, and wouldn't that make for a juicy follow-up story. We say someone was promoted, not that someone else seems to be on the way out. We find out someone is leaving a firm to join another, and are enjoined by the jumper, "Please don't print this, because I haven't told anyone here yet." And did I ever tell you the one about the banker we had to interview for a story, back in 1983, whose colleague said that Mr. So-and-So was not there, but that Miss So-and-So was? Pressed by our indefatigable reporter, the source said. "Well, she used to be a he."