Perhaps circling the drain even faster than the likes of black rhinos, whooping cranes and snow leopards, small-town newspapers represent a particularly sad and endangered form of business. Some remain securely on life-support thanks to legal notices required by small-county seats. Yet virtually none of this journalistic remnant truly sports a recognizable DNA.
For several generations before the cancerous growth of the internet, a sure measurement of town quality was the reliable collection and presentation of local news via a daily or weekly rag. Furthermore, fact-checking and extreme timeliness was almost beside the point. Truthfulness was important, but not quite as valued as the regular creation of the community's narrative and context.
Tapping the archives of my own newsstand, the wonderful example of the long-defunct "Polk Progress" always comes to mind. Written and published by a thoughtful man named Norris Alfred, this unique gazette was one of the last linotypes in central Nebraska to rattle out interesting copy every Friday.
Once nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, Alfred was a great writer, possessing more heart than nose for news. My favorite pages included columns on bird-watching, random events of hospitality (e.g., "Miss Claussen served cousins from Rising City lemonade and rhubarb pie on Sunday afternoon.") and last week's weather.
Yet the one element of newspaper layout that will be forever emblazoned, in my memory, is the definitive masthead. Below the bold letters of the tabloid's centered name sits a large snail, one particularly sluggish given only the token hint of a slime trail. Apparently moving from left to right, the snail lethargically pulls himself toward the "Progress'" slogan: "SLOWER IS BETTER."
Needless to say, it's impossible to ever imagine this phrase in the unabridged vocabulary of Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. Indeed, many entrepreneurs, consumers, professionals, workers, scientists and politicians would find such a bizarre value-assessment as a damning indictment of our entire culture.
Please don't prattle on about the danger of snap judgments, the reward of protracted deliberations and the irresponsibility of decision-making on the run. Spare us the inconvenience of thinking before we act, of doubting that our first blush could be dead wrong, and of wondering if wait and see could be the wisest strategy.
The 21st century was built for speed. Let us stumble forth with alacrity.
As you can probably tell, I can't completely remove tongue from cheek when discussing the modern world's speedy success story. I do think the way Alfred's "Progress" (no doubt meant with at least a little irony) esteemed a more measured pace of life and contained more wisdom.
In fact, I've always questioned speed per se (especially if it comes at the expense of thoughtful deliberation) as a worthwhile tool in the critical process of price-discovery. My anxiety in this regard has significantly intensified in recent weeks, ever since USDA announced its decision to change the way it would release major report data, essentially abandoning the "lockup" procedure that has well served producers and speculators for decades.
For years, USDA has given news organizations embargoed copies of market-moving reports an hour and a half earlier than the reports are released to the public.
While members of the media cannot publish any of the data until the official public report is released, the 90-minute blackout has always allowed plenty of time for fact-checking, correcting math errors and the composition of meaningful context.
As sensible as that may sound, the historical system is no more. Crop reports and new supply and demand tables to be released on Friday will be tossed to the unprepared trading mob like so much red meat to hungry but confused lions.
So why did Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue and his unthinking minions suddenly become obsessed to fix what wasn't broken? In short, the USDA team was motivated by unproven and rather farfetched allegation that high-speed fiber optic lines -- that are slightly faster than the speed at which USDA uploads the information -- had created an unlevel playing field.
"There is evidence to suggest that there is significant trading activity worth millions of dollars that occurs in the one or two second period immediately following the official release of reports, which could not be based on the public reading of USDA data," USDA said in a statement. "The inference is that private agents are paying the news agencies for faster data transmission to get a jump on the market."
Before going further, let me stipulate that DTN is one of the news agencies previously allowed to examine and frame official data 90 minutes before the official release. Secondly, I think my coverage over the years clearly indicates that I am generally a defender of the government data collection ability and procedure. I've never had a predictable desire to beat a dead horse in that regard, a sport that has often been overplayed, in my opinion.
Yet this is one carcass that is beginning to smell. USDA has made a blunder here, a mistake that I fear will cause more problems in terms of market volatility and credibility than it ever hoped to solve.
At least two things bother me as USDA attempts to become a quick-change artist. First, there seems to be a serious lack of evidence to justify abandoning a time-tested procedure. Secretary Perdue loosely talks about "evidence" and "inferences." But while the implications are rather insulting, the department shows no interest in following regular procedures of investigation and public comment.
Second, I think the change reflects yet another example of being drunk on the importance and effectiveness of speed per se. I think all producers and traders can cite contrary market moments when advanced knowledge of USDA data proved to be illogically expensive.
Call me a yokel from the backwoods who likes to read old newspapers, but don't marketers have more of a fighting chance if they break both twittering thumbs, take about five deep breaths and embrace the broader context before issuing buy or sell orders?
John Harrington can be reached at email@example.com
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