Reporting on an Unpredictable Deal

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In April, Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, set the wheels in motion for a dramatic arc when it was revealed that he had bought a 9.2 percent share of Twitter. Over the next several weeks, Mr. Musk was invited to join Twitter’s board, then reversed course, threatened a hostile takeover of the company and ultimately reached a deal to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion last week.

Mr. Musk is a difficult person for journalists to cover. His tweets can be cryptic, like when, in the midst of conversations with Twitter, he quoted Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” a possible allusion to a hostile bid — which is also known as a tender offer. Lauren Hirsch, a Times reporter who writes for DealBook and who covers business and mergers and acquisitions (M&A), has been reporting on the deal since the start — and it hasn’t always been easy.

In an interview, Ms. Hirsch discussed what it’s been like to cover an unpredictable figure throughout a remarkable series of events. This interview has been edited.

How did you begin covering Twitter and Elon Musk?

I write for DealBook, so I cover anything having to do with deals. I fell into the Elon-Twitter beat. The news first broke when he revealed that he had become the largest individual shareholder in the company; we wrote it up for DealBook. I happened to have sources, my corporate governance understanding and my M&A understanding.

He was on my radar to the extent that he’s an exceptionally powerful, important man in industries that are reshaping the future and the country. But he was not someone I spent a lot of my time writing about or thinking about. I tend to cover very stable things, and he is not that. It has been a tough experience for me, in having to embrace that volatility, because that’s the nature of covering Elon Musk. They say it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not sometimes. But it definitely makes things exciting.

This has been a volatile deal, especially because Mr. Musk is so unpredictable.

It’s absolutely unlike any other deal I’ve ever covered, and my sources say it’s like no other deal they have ever done. At first, he put out an offer saying he wanted to buy Twitter. But there was no financing intact and everyone was saying, “Oh, Elon’s being Elon, this is just kind of funny.”

But then a week later, he had financing and all of a sudden, what had become a joke was a serious acquisition. The speed with which it all happened was incredible. When I heard on Sunday that there might be a deal on Monday, I was nervous to even say that out loud.

Do you look to his tweets for insight?

I definitely look at his tweets. He was tweeting about potentially launching a hostile bid, which he didn’t ultimately do, but he was preparing to. He tweeted a reference to “Barbarians at the Gate,” which is a famous M&A book, the week that he ultimately did the deal.

Then there was this one tweet the day before he announced the deal that said he’s moving on, and we were asking, “Moving on from a deal? Is he done?” We were all staring at his tweets, because we didn’t know what he would do next. Sometimes, they did ultimately end up as clues as to what his next steps were.

What was the most frenzied part of covering this story?

The most frenzied part of it was definitely on Sunday. He had put out his fully financed packet a couple of days prior. As an M&A reporter, you know there’s been a shift in the dynamic — he’s now made his bid stronger. Then I got a text from a source on Sunday saying, “I think there could be a deal, and it could be Monday.” I was at a play, and I ran out. I think from 2 p.m. that day to 5 a.m. the next day I was communicating with my sources because the two sides were trying to negotiate a deal.

In a normal situation, I would have written a story on Sunday that said a deal could be announced as soon as Monday, but he was so unpredictable. I kept waking up every hour, pinging my sources to ask if anything had changed. I was so concerned that something crazy might happen, and you don’t want to miss it in either direction.

Do you ever try to predict what Mr. Musk will do next?

I don’t. Obviously, it’s helpful to understand his past. You have to understand the person that you’re covering. What I use as a benchmark is what M&A deals typically look like. I have a list of things that could reasonably, possibly happen. And even if one of those five things sounds crazy to me, I know I still need to ask about that.

I’ve covered enough deals that I’ve learned to never assume anything. There have been deals that have happened that I didn’t think would, and vice versa. You trust your journalism instincts, but you have to question all of your instincts as it pertains to rationality, because that doesn’t necessarily apply here.





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