In the beginning, DealBook was a newsletter with links to that morning’s Times, and then, when DealBook became a blog, it was a place for the newspaper to compete on news that broke during the day and would be too late for tomorrow’s edition. Now, a re-re-launched third iteration of DealBook has for the past month occupied a dedicated space in the daily paper in the form of a piece carrying the DealBook logo inside the business section; the fact that the spin-off now has a page of the thing it spun off from is a sort of recursive wormhole in logic that makes the brain hurt.
But no matter! Nine years after it entered the world as a simple email roundup of mergers-and-acquisitions headlines, The Times‘ DealBook has become almost unrecognizably huge, with that print-edition space, a full-fledged vertical off nytimes.com and a news staff of 16–all at a time when the rest of the news business, both inside and outside of The Times, is shriveling.
Along the way, DealBook’s creator, Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, has gone big time, too, with a best-selling book, Too Big to Fail, a weekly column, frequent appearances on CNBC and MSNBC–and enough cachet to embed his own name in the DealBook logo, so that atop its many incarnations the words “Edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin” appear, again and again. It’s a privilege not extended to any other Times editor on earth, including many with decades more experience than he has.
It’s all because Mr. Sorkin, at 33, delivers two things that other Times staffers cannot: a strategy for the Internet, which the entire news business is grappling to find, and an extraordinarily lucrative advertising base, also in short supply. Turned out in a shiny gray two-button suit and a patterned tie last month at the Four Seasons restaurant to toast the success of DealBook, Mr. Sorkin accepted the enthusiastic praise of his 150 or so guests, many of them the masters of the universe that he and his reporters cover: Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Dick Parsons, Steve Rattner, Bob Rubin, Alan Patricof and various other banking, private-equity and hedge fund nabobs. Times brass, the other key constituency in the restaurant, beamed; publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., gave Mr. Blankfein bunny ears as they posed for a photograph.
A newsroom is a competitive place, and at The Times, Mr. Sorkin’s DealBook–in its various forms–is gaining in the race for page views, column inches, attention from top editors, hiring dollars and other measures. DealBook is a component of The Times‘ business coverage, but with momentum like this, it can at times seem larger than the paper’s hard-copy business coverage–headier, certainly, than the less glamorous work done elsewhere in the section, such as reporting on unemployment numbers or the ramifications of quantitative easing. And it’s easy to conjure a future in which DealBook, the progeny, eclipses the business section itself.
That sense of momentum clearly was in the air at the Four Seasons party, the kind of blowout bash that has become all but extinct in New York newspaper circles. Mr. Sorkin’s drive has landed him in a better, more refined world. Two days after the party, HBO resumed work on the movie version of Too Big to Fail, shooting a scene at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, with William Hurt and Paul Giamatti playing Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, respectively.
FOR DECADES, THE Wall Street Journal was the undisputed king of financial news in America. Its Wall Street and mergers-and-acquisitions coverage, in particular, won the paper respect and an armload of Pulitzers. Then: Rupert Murdoch. Since purchasing the paper in 2007, he has been remaking The Journal into a general-interest daily, devoting fewer column inches each day to business news and analysis. Other ad-friendly coverage zones, including books, marketing and sports, have, in turn, been expanded.
A number of competitors have moved in to fill the core-business void: Reuters acquired Breakingviews to get into commentary; the Financial Times has aggressively expanded its newsrooms in New York and Washington; Bloomberg News revitalized BusinessWeek and has generally become a behemoth.
A lot of the core business staff at The Journal hates what’s happened and refuses to go down without a fight; they still win lots of scoops. But the paper’s self-imposed decline is a reality, and in the contest to win its territory, The Times‘ primary entry isn’t BusinessDay, long its financial flagship, but DealBook.
“The timing of doing this now at some level relates to the fact that the business-news landscape is changing. One of the players, The Wall Street Journal, is shifting its focus,” Mr. Sorkin said in a telephone interview. “I would be the last person to suggest to you that they’re losing market share, but I do think because of the shift in focus, there might be an opening in terms of the mind share for business news, and this type of news specifically. That’s the opening we’re hoping to go through.” (Mr. Sorkin talked to The Observer late on a Sunday night, and was admirably lucid despite being the father of 10-week-old twins.)
The evolution of the opportunity helps to explain the shape shifting of DealBook. The thing can be maddeningly difficult to define–even for Mr. Sorkin. Part of the confusion is that as the entity has evolved, it has remained the things it used to be: DealBook is still the name of an email newsletter, and the revamped dealbook.nytimes.com that launched Nov. 9 still contains a blog. This third iteration contains more original video, guest columnists and reporting from a newly beefed-up staff–recent DealBook hires include stars Peter Lattman and Sue Craig (both from The Journal), Azam Ahmed (Chicago Tribune) and Ben Protess (Huffington Post Investigative Fund), as well as key editors.
The Times itself, struggling to come up with a name for its kudzu creation, appears to have settled on “the DealBook franchise” in press releases.
“I don’t use a word, and that probably complicates things,” Mr. Sorkin said on Tuesday. “The DealBook brand name, or whatever, is on a lot of things now. My column, two emails, the Web; now it’s in the paper as a section. News service? Financial news service? The DealBook ‘franchise’? Has someone used that? I don’t know. We probably should come up with some larger thing.”
Mr. Sorkin likes to describe his staff as “a real-time SWAT team” that focuses on finance, Wall Street and other parts of the loosely bounded world of dealmaking. Washington regulators, the courts and various funds–venture capital, private equity, hedge–also make up this “deal ecosphere,” another popular Sorkin phrase; any of them can be “the straw that stirs the drink,” “mixing the pot” to create a cascading news effect “like dominoes”–there is no shortage of ways to describe the interconnectedness of the clubby world DealBook covers.
“I’VE NEVER CONTRIBUTED to fucking DealBook,” a former Times staffer sneered, when The Observer mistakenly asked about his tenure. Why so offended? “I don’t think it’s New York Times-quality journalism,” he explained. “I think it’s a kind of pandering. It treats Wall Street like this wonderful place that we should be proud of. … Any idea that starts with the premise of ‘We’re gonna make these people really like us’ is bad journalism.”
Scenes like the Four Seasons party, with its eager C-suite guest list, and Barclays and Goldman Sachs touted as charter advertisers, delight Times executives (see: bunny ears) and dismay some in the Times newsroom. Internal skeptics recently have delighted in pointing out the shellacking The Times has received on the recent hedge fund insider-trading scandal, which The Journal, despite its distractions, has completely dominated.
DealBook critics often invoke Politico as they attempt to describe how the outlets’ obsession with velocity and micro-scoops (“Get there fast. Get there first” reads one DealBook slogan) requires suspending old-fashioned journalistic traits like skepticism and distrust of institutions, not to mention deep sourcing and nuance, and draw similarities between Politico’s lusty cheering-on of partisan warfare and DealBook’s chummy relationship with the bankers who took the economy to the brink.
It is true that DealBook has adopted the tone of much of the rest of Web journalism, which comes across as more participatory and clubby than distanced and skeptical.
Mr. Sorkin offers no apologies, arguing that his creation is often deeply critical of Wall Street, and invoking Politico as a DealBook model himself. (Also, TechCrunch, another site notorious for rapacious but often-wrong coverage.) “What Politico does so well is they speak to a community,” Mr. Sorkin told The Observer. “But they do it tonally–in a way that’s both accessible, and at some level probably even aspirational, so that people who are not inside the Beltway can feel O.K. dropping in, and getting a peek inside the window of this world. And that’s what DealBook can do to the business community. We can write stories and tell a narrative, and yet do it in a way that’s accessible enough, and maybe even aspirational enough, for other people, including the broader Times readership.”
To some extent, the friction at The Times between print standards and online ones is typical of a debate under way in newsrooms across the country. After all, the old-guard defenders of the past usually aren’t willing to accept that their way has coincided with the financial demolition of the news business. Innovators like Mr. Sorkin and DealBook may rub some people the wrong way, but they could end up providing the money that the rest of the newsroom needs to keep the lights on.
Felix Salmon, a Reuters blogger who does fast-but-smart better than almost anyone, said he was seriously impressed by how Mr. Sorkin had broadened The Times‘ advertising base. “You don’t see a lot of brand advertising for Goldman Sachs in BizDay,” he said.
Is the entrepreneurial Mr. Sorkin the Times-man of the future? Mr. Salmon thought about that one. “Pretty much the only media organization that cultivates and is proud of this whole sort of ego-driven star culture is Condé. They love seeing Graydon going off and starting up restaurants; they love seeing Chris Anderson going off and having his big speaking-gig thing,” Mr. Salmon said. “Other media organizations have traditionally been much warier of that. The fact is, on the Internet, individual brands really do resonate in a way that more corporate ones don’t. So the ability that The Times has demonstrated to let the David Pogues and the Bittmans”–The Observer had mentioned it likes cooking with Mark Bittman’s iPhone app–”and the Sorkins do their thing and shine is really smart of them.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Mr. Sorkin has a contract to appear on both CNBC and MSNBC; he does not. He has a “contributor” agreement only with CNBC.