Every week-day morning at about 7 a.m., two former Reuters News Agency reporters huddle at their offices at Washington's International Monetary Fund and begin punching into a Lexicron word-processing machine a handful of brisk summaries of the day's international economic news.
Thus, what is known around the IMFas "the fabled blue sheet" gets under way. By 11 a.m., the single legal-sized, blue-tinted sheets, titled "Morning Press," is in the hands of all IMF officials and is in the process of being distributed to other government offices in Washington and to the top financial officers of the 140 IMF member countries all over the world.
This week, as the IMF and World Bank gather at the Washington Sheraton here for their joint annual meeting, the Lexicron operation is moving to the hotel on Woodley Road NW. There, as many as four or five editions of Morning Press will be cranked out through the end of the meeting Friday. For 3,500 delegates and members of the press, it will be the most widely read journal in town.
To be sure, news-clips services for the benefit of the top brass are not unique in the Washington bureaucracy. Elaborate newsgathering services for this purpose are in operation at the White House, Pentagon, State and Treasury department and elsewhere.
What makes the "blue sheet" somewhat unique is the simplicity of the two-man operation, headed by David Armour, a Canadian who has been an information officer for the IMF for the past 12 years.
The "blue sheet" is a skillfully edited summary drawing from the foreign as well as the English-language press. Armour can handle French, German, Russian and relies on one of his aides to scan the Latin American press. The final product is a crisp rundown -- using the authors' own words -- of the major economic stories of the day, done in a way to preserve the original flavor.
With the help of Graham Newman, a British subject who joined the IMF staff two years ago, Armour picks the 15 to 20 stories that can be encapsulated in the 2,200-word daily limit. "It focuses the mind wonderfully when you realize that you only have 2,200 words to play with," Armour says. All told, from the papers and news services to which the IMF subscribers, there are about 1.5 million words a day to choose from.
The final product, Washington business news specialists believe, is a candid sheet, which sometimes leaves thin-skinned officials squirming. Armour says he tries to maintain a reasonable balance of news, which means that these days, there are plenty of articles unfavorable to the IMF or that put things more succinctly than the typical self-indulgent language of a bureaucracy like the IMF.
Occasionaly, a verboten topic creeps into daylight, courtesy of the Blue Sheet. For example, Morning Press the other day picked up a piece from O Estado de Sao Paulo, which revealed that Brazil is planning to come hat in hand to borrow money from the IMF next year. Officially, no one around the IMF talks about that.
Armour admits that Morning Press is weak in covering the Third World. By the time newspapers from Africa arrive in Washington, for example, the news is rather stale. That means that the "blue sheet" tends to focus on the First World press, at least a minor worry for Armour at a time when the IMF is concerned with its admittedly poor image in the Third World.
Morning Press' penchant for candor has resulted in it's being censored, in effect, so far as the Treasury's own clip-sheet operation is concerned. Back in 1977, the then Secretary, W. Michael Blumenthal, was roundly criticized, especially in the European press, for "talking the dollar down."
What happened was that the faithful reporting in the "blue sheet" of what the European press was saying was a bit too much for Blumenthal. So the Treasury clip-sheet, which formerly had reproduced part of Morning Press, stopped doing so.
"The Secreatary," a Tresury spokesman said at the time, "isn't all that interested in seeing himself taken apart." The blackout of reproduction of blue-sheet items (on any subject) still continues at Treasury.
But the Treasury, like other important financial agencies in Washington -- including the World Bank, the Federal Reserve and the Inter-American Development Bank -- all get a bundle of the "blue sheet" daily to distribute to top officials. Altogether, 788 of the daily 2,500 print order, go outside of the IMF building. (During annual meetings, the print order runs to 4,000 or a bit more).
A few highly privileged individuals, including former Federal Reserve Chariman Arthur F. Burns, get their own copies as a result of some past courtesy from the IMF. But ordinarily, the only way for individuals, including journalists, to get the "blue sheet" is by turning up personally at the IMF's press office.
Outside the U.S., the distribution is handled by the executive directors of the 140 member countries, who shoot it back home by the fastest mail, or by facsimile operations in some cases. "My only complaint about the 'blue sheet' is that it takes three days to reach me," former German Central Bank Chairman Otmar Emnminger once said.