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Why Michael Bloomberg Is Blowing Up Bloomberg News

Why Michael Bloomberg Is Blowing Up Bloomberg News

And I wondered if Michael Bloomberg would get bored after spending 12 years in city hall.

Perish the thought. He is doing what he loves to do: create change.

Last January, Bloomberg returned from three terms as mayor of New York to run Bloomberg LP,  the company he founded in the early 1980s. It seemed at first like he was taking either a step back, for such a wildly ambitious, self-made billionaire, or maybe merely this move represented a holding pattern until he made his next big move — such as acquiring the New York Times or a major TV news operation or positioning himself someday to be Secretary of State.

Guess what? He doesn’t exactly seem to be bored these days — especially in regard to Bloomberg News. Founded in 1990 as a way to lighten up the data-driven content on the Bloomberg Terminal, it has exploded beyond anyone’s expectations to become the most dynamic force in journalism.  It covers every conceivable business and finance story and doesn’t miss much away from Wall Street, either. It is constantly adding to staff while rivals are shrinking in numbers and sheer ambition. It has been a model of management stability for nearly 25 years. 

Now, Bloomberg, in simple terms, is blowing up the news division. Some observers may say my conclusion is too harsh, too over the top. But it is not. Mike Bloomberg wants to create a new brand of Bloomberg News. 

The vaunted Bloomberg Terminal will always be the lifeblood of Bloomberg’s empire.Now, The Boss is saying that it, too, needs a new approach — or at least one that will exist in sharp contrast to the past. 

He is saying with his actions that that his company’s news operation needs a bold makeover. Will it work? Well, I worked for him from 1993 to 1999 as a reporter in the New York bureau of Bloomberg News. I’ve come to understand that this is a leader of an unusually high intellect. You don’t bet against him. Mike has proven himself to be a visionary, first on Wall Street, next as a media and information tycoon and finally as a politician.

If he had opted to launch a company and sell shares in it like Warren Buffett did with Berkshire Hathaway, I’d have been standing in line to buy stock in Bloomberg’s entity. He is shrewd enough to recognize that it is far more advantageous for him to run a private operation and do it his way all the time.

Bloomberg reeks of self-confidence and that is half the battle in life. He knows what he wants to accomplish and he in turn recruits people who share his vision. I never regretted leaving his media company in 1999 to do something different in journalism, but I did feel disappointed that I would no longer be working for such a dynamic CEO. (Fortunately, though, it all worked out; he left the company about a year after I did, to run for mayor). 

Cleaning House

Make no mistake, Bloomberg is intent on cleaning house, swiftly and dramatically.

First, he nudged Dan Doctoroff, who ran Bloomberg LP during a good chunk of Bloomberg’s city-hall life. Now, he has moved Matthew Winkler out as editor in chief to make room for John Micklethwait, who had presided successfully over The Economist magazine. Winkler, the news division’s founding editor in 1990, will become the editor in chief emeritus (whatever that means) when he successor arrives in January.

Bloomberg News had a deep bench beyond Winkler. But most of the department leaders came from the Wall Street Journal (as did Winkler himself). In the past decade, these Journal recruits, in a bloodless revolution, shoved most of the original Bloomberg News executives out of the inner news-gathering process. They now have less integral positions inside the company.

If Mike Bloomberg had been feeling confident about the news division’s leadership, he would have replaced Winkler with one of his lieutenants. But Mike chose to go outside, always a signal that the boss is relatively restless or even unhappy with what he has on his staff. He wants to turn the page. Change is never easy for a company but the Bloomberg News veterans would be wise to embrace it asap. 

And Bloomberg chose to hire someone from a magazine! Bloomberg News is an operation which has made breaking news its backbone. It has had a very stylized — see The Bloomberg Way — way of writing stories. I found it stifling but it has worked overall — and now it is all changing. Look for a different kind of Bloomberg News.

Mike Bloomberg wants to have a more irreverent, lively and analytical product to present to his blessed Wall Street clients, who thousands of dollars each month for the right to lease the popular terminals.

He wants to stress ideas, it seems, and go far beyond the stuff traditionally found on the terminal. It sounds like the kind of company I would have stayed to work for — and would like to follow, I suspect I’m not alone.

The Takeaway

 The takeaway is that Mike Bloomberg is audaciously redrafting the image and direction of his company.

Bloomberg seems to want a more nimble news division, possibly a smaller, more focused one, too. The company has added Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, who wrote “Game-Change,” about the 2008 presidential campaigns. Their mandate is to enliven Bloomberg’s multimedia political coverage and give it charisma and an an identity inside and outside of the Beltway. 

Bloomberg recently added Joseph Weisenthal, who had been editing Business Insider — which is about as polar opposite of a news orientation from Bloomberg’s as you could find anywhere.

Business Insider publishes a lot of copy, some of it interesting, sone of it thoughtful, and a lot of it is fluffy and shrill, designed to bring curious eyeballs to the site and nothing more. It is a winning business combination. Weisenthal is charged with lifting Bloomberg’s straightforward markets-news coverage to a more interesting level. Whether it can work at tradition-bound and rigid Bloomberg News remains to be seen.

Consumer Brand?

Can Bloomberg’s company now finally become what he has long wanted: a gleaming juggernaut for both Wall Streeters and the unwashed masses of Main Street.

Bloomberg’s company, Bloomberg L.P., has never had too much luck or success in presenting itself as a glamorous, consumer-driven media and money company. Perhaps the two concepts are simply incongruous because Main Street doesn’t always warm easily to global matters. His TV and radio stations and his Bloomberg Markets magazine never gained a foothold among non-finance people (one reason why he sought to buy BusinessWeek magazine). 

Mostly, Bloomberg’s Bloomberg has thrived by leasing those iconic Bloomberg Terminals to Wall Street, where traders and bankers and brokers rely heavily on the kind of real-time news and information that Bloomberg is known for, through those machines and its news division. 

Bloomberg and his lieutenants have long wanted the whole world to be exposed to his company’s brand of journalism. It it a source of frustration to Mike and his team that this has failed to take hold in a large way. While journalists now hold Bloomberg in high esteem, the general public continues to think of the New York Times as the news Zeus. 

He is clamored to re-make the way users peruse the Bloomberg Terminal. He wants them to go beyond Top Go — the shorthand for the day’s top stories — and read all kinds of additional content on the terminal. He is getting impatient.

In the early days of Bloomberg News, the product was quite irreverent. One of its most lively features was the work of Paul the Biker, a cyclist who traveled around and wrote his observations. If my memory serves me well, the first time the Bloomberg Terminal crashed, it happened immediately after an editor posted a headline saying something along the lines of: Woman Throws Husband’s Penis Out Of Car Window. The second time, I believe, occurred on the indelible morning of Aug. 9, 1995: “Jerry Garcia Found Dead.”

Mike Bloomberg, his friends say, has always encouraged an image of “Think Yiddish — Dress British.”

Now, it appears, he is thinking British, too, as he wants to re-create the dry wit of The Economist, perhaps in place of an endless stream of breaking news.

The year 2015 will mark the quarter-century anniversary of Bloomberg News. It has come a long way since the early days when its reporters gamely stuck an antenna out of a window to find out what was happening during Desert Storm in 1991 so the journalists could add to the coverage on the Bloomberg Terminal.

It will be exciting for journalists to follow the bouncing ball at Bloomberg News. Mike is a notoriously impatient leader. He welcomes opportunities to create change at his company, just as he did at city hall. He knows what he is doing and has invariably had an unerring instinct for knowing how to get it done.

He is taking what just might be his biggest gamble now by shaking up the successful company he built from scratch so long ago.

Don’t bet against him.



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