Editors' Notebook

Locked Out

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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There are a handful of tenets to good journalism: Always seek the truth. Never proclaim something as true without corroboration from multiple sources. Serve readers first. Keep yourself, the journalist, out of the story.

That last one has unfortunately become impossible for us at DTN in relation to the July 11 announcement that USDA will end the century-old process of media access to its report.

If you missed that policy change, you can find our staff story on it, "USDA Ends Report Access For Media" by searching our online archives at www.dtnpf.com.

To be clear, we at DTN have a dog in this fight. This is not a story we can cover with neutrality, because it affects our reporting, the news we can supply customers and readers, and our business.

But that's not why we'll continue to cover it. We're making a pretty big deal out of this issue because we think it puts farmers, elevator operators, and rural citizens in general, at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace.

As our Chris Clayton reports in the July 18 story, "USDA's Not So Equal Access," logic questions the very claims the agency makes about why it decided to change the lockup policy. The agency is adamant that forcing everyone to download commodity report data from its website puts all users on even footing. But as Clayton so deftly points out, this is the same agency that for some time has been saying the lack of reliable broadband access in farm country is the greatest hurdle for rural economic development.

Yes, Mr. Farmer with the sketchy, 10 megabyte internet connection, and the ever-dropping cellphone service, your government says you now have the same access to USDA data as a multi-million-dollar trading firm with the data-scanning power many small countries' defense departments would envy. Go get 'em, tiger.

So our coverage is ultimately about you, not us.

To be honest, most of the DTN reporters involved would be perfectly happy to never have to go through another USDA report lockup again.

It's a pressure cooker. Reporters go through airport-like security, complete with an armed guard decked out in full body armor. They usually have less than 30 minutes to digest 40 or more pages of USDA numbers and turn them into a story that helps readers understand what it all means to their commodity prices. The less time they have until USDA flips the internet connection switch at 12:00 Eastern, means the longer that USDA economists and statisticians debated those numbers. The more the debate, the more potentially contentious and market-moving those numbers are likely to be, which puts even more stress on reporters to get things right in less time.

At least one of our former lockup reporters was known to routinely hit the send button on the report flash story, then beat feet for the closest bathroom and lose the bulk of breakfast due to the stress of getting things right for you all, our readers.

There's also a large investment in equipment, motel rooms, meals, airline flights, cab fares and the rest that goes along with putting a team of reporters into a building in Washington, D.C., each month.

In short, life would be much simpler without the USDA media lockup. So we're not covering this issue because we're afraid of getting bored and listless without the monthly report tasks.

We're covering, aggressively, this policy decision because we feel it does not level the playing field in the grain trade. We feel, in the strongest terms possible, that it does quite the contrary.

No grain expert we've talked to, outside of USDA that is, agrees that making this change will end high-speed electronic trading. As you can read in Clayton's story, many trading algorithms are suspected to not even look at the data. They fire off buy or sell orders, or both, based on the time of day in hopes of nudging a market move that the report data, once public, will push even harder. As many sources we've talked to have said, not only does the new policy not change high-speed trading, it puts farmers at an even bigger disadvantage because of the time gap and internet speed issues I've mentioned earlier.

We think that's just wrong, and we're apoplectic at how the leaders at USDA, who seem to be well-educated, relatively sophisticated folk, would think otherwise.

Our coverage is also about getting to that "truth" I mentioned earlier, to why the policy change was made in the first place.

USDA is a public institution. It was, as many know, nicknamed "The People's Department" when originally established. The agency routinely claims to serve the public, and to be transparent in that service. And to be fair, in so many ways it does exactly that.

Not this time. This policy decision, and any discussions around it, have to date been as transparent as a barn door. There was no conversation about the idea of canceling media access with anyone affected by it. No alternatives were vetted in public view. No tediously long and complicated "listening sessions" and "stakeholder meetings" that are so in vogue at USDA these days. No comment period.

USDA claims it talked to organizations such as the CFTC, but has so far refused to provide any records of those meetings or provide access to individuals who participated in those meetings.

USDA economist Seth Meyer, who heads up the group that calculates critical supply and demand data around the report, claimed in a press meeting announcing the new policies that he over time had heard from many farm groups and other "small-scale users," and they repeatedly complained that the current media access procedure was "a big problem."

We've asked USDA for the people and organizations who complained. Crickets.

DTN reporters spent days contacting farm organizations and grain trade groups, asking if they either weighed in on the issue voluntarily or if they were asked about the issue by USDA. Not one claimed knowledge of anyone in their organization discussing these policies. In most cases, our phone call or email was the first they'd heard of the issue at all.

There was no proof offered that any alternative "field-leveling" ideas were discussed. Frankly, if USDA is worried about the two-second difference between when media outlets get the information out and when that data hits USDA's servers in Kansas City, as they claimed repeatedly, they could simply install two switches in the pressroom. Turn on the switch sending data to their website, then count "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi," heck even count to 10 for good measure, before flipping on the internet connection for the media.

They could simply outlaw the high-speed lines media outlets were allowed to bring into the buildings. Put us on dial-up modems.

They could even -- horror of horrors -- have had a legitimate, public discussion on the pros and evils of algorithmic, high-speed trading in the commodities markets. Now THAT would level the playing field for the farmers they claim to care so much about. But we have no way of knowing if any of those alternatives where ever discussed. Because The People's Department left "the people" out of those discussions.

Which leads me to another tenet of journalism. Light is always better than dark. Knowledge, no matter how embarrassing, is in the end always better than the lack of it. Because there is no advantage in free society to keep things in the dark, except for those who want to ensure an advantage.

So we'll keep shining light into this murky room, even if that beam hits us in the eyes from time to time.

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier

(AG)

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