Labor Department nixes early access to economic data for the media

"Unlike some media organizations ... the general public does not have up to 30 minutes before the official release time to digest the data or to take actions," the Labor Department explained.
Image: Andrew Silverman
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday it would end the early distribution of government economic data. Richard Drew / AP file

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By Erik Sherman

The Labor Department will end the practice of releasing economic data to certain media outlets, the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed Thursday, citing "concerns regarding the security" of that information.

Best known to the public for its much-followed monthly economic snapshot that includes the unemployment rate, wage growth, and the number of jobs added in the prior month, the BLS has long offered early access to some major news organizations. Known as a 'lock-up,' the process provides access to reports 30 to 60 minutes ahead of their official release so that stories can be published at the same time as the data is made available on the BLS website.

Reporters have their own computers but no access to phones or internet until the release time, at which point someone essentially throws a large switch that restores communications to the room.

The important advantage is that reporters can input the data into pre-existing forms that transmit the moment communications resumed — and certain media companies sold access to that early data.

One group particularly dependent on data is so-called high-frequency traders. They use sophisticated computer systems to buy and sell stocks based on market conditions — such as the data in the economic releases from the BLS, which are "extremely important," according to Dan Passarelli, a former options trader who founded the training company Market Taker Mentoring.

Everything depends on speed. "For a lot of traders, it's a race," Passarelli said.

Getting pre-formatted and arranged data "would provide those traders an advantage if they didn't have to go through the process of keying in the data off of a press release or turning a PDF into a spreadsheet," said Albert Brenner, director of asset allocation strategy for People's United Advisors.

"The way the lock-up process works is we're basically in a secure room," said Mark Jekanowski, acting chair of the World Agricultural Outlook Board at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The board had a similar early access process up until the spring of 2018.

In a Thursday letter to administrators, BLS Commissioner William Beach wrote about "concerns regarding the security of economic data stemming from news organizations’ pre-release access known as 'lock-ups.'" (The Department of Labor provided the letter but said it could not provide someone for an interview.)

"However, unlike some media organizations with computer access in the current lock-up, the general public does not have up to 30 minutes before the official release time to digest the data or to take actions that may lag behind transmissions following the lock-up," Beach wrote.

The BLS said it will implement the new policy starting March 1. Reporters can still attend and get advanced copies, but they will all have to write their stories on paper — no computers — and then dictate them over the phone to their offices.