Neil Collins has become addicted to alphaville’s interactive forum for stock-market watchers
There are thousands of websites for anyone interested in markets. You can spend whole days shunting from one to another, blitzed by irritating ads, looking at share prices anywhere in the world, reading opinions expert and stupid, blud-geoned by analysis. Where on earth do you start? Can you sift the wheat from the chaff? More importantly, can you avoid being bored to death?
The small, resolute band who still read the print version of the Financial Times have long since become used to skimming past what we in the trade call a ‘house ad’ — a puff for something related to the paper, or owned by its proprietor. On the back page of the FT, inserted into the stock- market report, is a box. Framed by mugshots of a couple of dubious-looking characters, it urges readers to log on to Markets Live every weekday at 11 a.m. It’s hardly arresting, and most newspapers offer something superficially similar: rolling news services, fat-chewing exercises from columnists, or cringingly wooden interviews between pairs of journalists both of whom would rather be writing, which is what they signed up to do before the internet whirled them into the telly.
Alphaville — www.ft.com/alphaville — is different. Its inventor is Paul Murphy, the shiftier-looking of the pair of mugshots. He was a fine, mischievous stock-market reporter when I was City editor of the Daily Telegraph, and I was upset but not surprised when the Guardian pinched him to be its City editor. He has the demeanour of a bookie, and a rapport with those upmarket bookies who call themselves market-makers in stocks and shares.
He eventually found out what the rest of us financial hacks already knew, that nobody in the City reads the Guardian because they think it’s full of pinko rubbish. (If they don’t read it, how do they know? But that’s another story.) So keen was he to escape to a more informed audience that he approached the FT with a half-baked idea for a website — which would collate blogs, sites and gossip, interact with its users and be somehow different and attractive. The early (paper) version — it would be stretching a point to call it a business plan — he sent to me was mostly circles with lines joining them, like one of those organigrams that HR departments invent to justify their existence. Whatever, as the modern argot has it; the FT bought the idea, set him up in a corner of the newsroom and allowed him a couple of the smart, underpaid young things that inhabit every newspaper office — for an industry that’s supposed to be dying, it’s astonishing how many bright graduates are fighting to get into it.
You only have to look at the output of Helen Thomas and Sam Jones to see that they’re clever. They give the impression of understanding the acronyms in the toxic alphabet soup which is corroding the banks from the inside. They write confidently about SIVs, CPDOs and Lord knows what else. I’ve no idea whether they really understand them, but they give the impression that they do, and that’s what journalism is all about. Alphaville will also send you a 6 a.m. email summarising what’s worth reading in the morning papers, a useful bonus for City boys who’ve been out too late.
None of this would count for much, but for the aforementioned Markets Live. This is a real-time chat between Murphy and Neil Hume, the FT’s chief stock-market reporter, or Robert Orr as his stand-in. The pair sit next to each other and type (badly) into their terminals; seconds later, the text streams on to the screen of anyone who has logged in. They can, and do, pick up almost anything. They copy bits of company results statements, follow up with a couple of smart-arse comments, then paste in some analysts’ reactions.
Viewers can feed back their comments — which appear, live, as text under the dialogue. They must log in, but can remain anonymous. Increasingly, they have intelligent things to contribute, as well as terrible jokes. (Sample: who led the Pedants’ Revolt? Which Tyler.) Recalcitrant analysts are figuring out that if they don’t let the alphaville boys see their output, then someone else will email it in a few minutes later — so viewers get access to tons of useful stuff.
The result is sharp, quick and horribly addictive. Get your 11 a.m. fix on Markets Live, and you really feel you’re on top of events. Miss it, perhaps because where you are it’s 5 a.m. not 11 a.m., and you can read the transcript afterwards.
The alphaville team can draw on the FT specialists around them, although co-operation to date has been patchy. Understandably, a reporter with a good story wants to knock the other papers dead at breakfast next morning, not give them time to catch up by telling the world before lunch today. Yet the whole process of information dissemination is getting faster, and an exclusive story is rarely likely to stay that way even for a day. Better to grab what kudos you can and break it on the website.
The demands of regulators are also making life harder for story-getters. The journalistic instinct on hearing a price-sensitive rumour is to check it with the company concerned. If it’s denied, it’s hardly worth running. If it’s confirmed, the company feels obliged to put out a statement, and a scoop turns into a handful of dust. If it’s denied and later turns out to have been true, then hell hath no fury like a misled journo. Don’t get Murphy going on this subject.
To some extent, alphaville is flying blind. Murphy expected Markets Live to appeal to private punters at home or sneaking a look at the markets while at work. Professionals, after all, are already bombarded with information. So far, it hasn’t worked that way. Those who fire in comments and responses are clearly professionals, and they use the dialogue as a way to talk to each other as well as trying to beat Murphy & co with breaking news. In the months I’ve been watching, the number and quality of posted comments have risen sharply.
So how many participants are there? It seems that between 12,000 and 20,000 log on daily. During the SocGen crisis, viewers peaked at 60,000, still a pitifully small number when set against the claims of other sites — but in this world, there are lies, damned lies and internet traffic statistics. It’s likely that alphaville’s select band are a very sophisticated audience, and more of them would like to contribute, but dare not for fear of the wrath of their compliance departments.
Whatever its faults, alphaville is different. It goes with the grain of online technology, rather than trying to force-feed a newspaper on to the net. Its participating viewers are themselves an attraction to other viewers. It is clearly capable of more development as the technology evolves, perhaps in unexpected ways. It’s a terrific experiment, but like so many other clever sites, it hasn’t answered the hardest question of all: how do you make it pay? If Murphy can lure advertising from the people he spends so much time criticising, then alphaville really will have done well by doing good.