A media scrum in payrolls… | FT Alphaville

A media scrum in payrolls…

Heather Scott: So you’ll guarantee that every agency will be connected to the Internet at exactly the same millisecond?

Carl Fillichio: I’m not going to guarantee anything.

Heather Scott: So it won’t be a level playing field?

Carl Fillichio: It’s going to be, as my letter and the policy shows, clearly we are totally leveling the playing field because everybody is getting the same thing.

Heather Scott is the Washington bureau chief for MNI, the news wire, while Carl Fillichio is a flack at the US Department of Labor. Scott and Fillichio are having a rather testy ding-dong there on this conference call transcript.

We admit that this is about something a bit media navel-gazy, but it does affect one of the world’s most prominent economic indicators…

DOL is making changes to the press lock-up on the mornings when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases US nonfarm payrolls. Basically, this is a half-hour embargo period before the official data release when journalists surrender their Blackberries (etc.), sit in a room and write up their stories before a BLS official flicks a big switch to turn on the Internet (seriously, this is how it works).

Currently journalists do all that and get stories to their off-site editors on their own computers. The DOL will instead make them prepare and send stuff (solely in Word document form) from government computers and with an internet connection also through the government. News orgs therefore wouldn’t be able to use their own internet lines under this arrangement. Here’s a draft of the new rules, by the way.

Cue a Winkler-level escalation by Bloomberg.

The lock-up makes sure the world knows what the payrolls numbers are dead-on at 8:30am EST on the first Friday of the month, blah blah blah – If you’re in markets, you know what this number means, and you probably benefit if it gets out not only in prompt fashion, but in as complete a form as possible. US bond and global equity markets have enough conniptions over payrolls as it is.

The feds haven’t done a particularly good job of explaining why they want to do this.

Witness the flack-jargon-ey gibberish as Fillichio tells journos that…

“We have taken a holistic look at what the process has been, and this is a proactive approach to moving forward.”

… while insisting that the lock-up is a courtesy to journalists, not a right.

It’s clearly about preventing pre-release leaks though. Which is fine, but heavens, this is one weird way to go about it.

It seems the nub of the objection to the new rules is that journos won’t get a level internet connection from the government computers in practice, and will also get things up in dribs and drabs. Especially if they have to go through doing stuff via Word documents and so on. Of course this is also about newswire business models; wires see a temporal — ergo client — advantage in using their own lines.

If nothing else, this whole episode shows that “market time” and the media have evolved.

Still – how much would you as a market participant care about this? We’re not sure. Unless you’re trying to arb micro-second-speed price discrepancies, maybe you shouldn’t. For its part, Bloomberg is insistent that this might make the payrolls release more volatile. And one implication of the DOL change is that technically, the first place to find payrolls data on Jobs Day will be the BLS website. And how often does that go down when payrolls come out?

If you answered “too often”, you’re probably right.

By Joseph Cotterill and Cardiff Garcia