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Bloomberg News' Season In Hell

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by Jon Friedman
November 21, 2013 4:26 PM
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Bloomberg News will remember 2013 as a season in hell, thanks to the unwanted news coverage that four events have generated. The highly respected organization's image has taken a hit this year.

Last spring, Bloomberg was excoriated in the media when it came to light that some of its reporters had been using the vaunted Bloomberg terminal to glean information on clients and snoop on them without their knowledge. 

A few months later, a Bloomberg news editor, with 20 years of experience at the company, was unceremoniously discharged after putting out an incorrect headline about a prominent insider-trading case. Even though the editor immediately corrected his error, it didn't matter. Some thought the action against him was unduly harsh while others speculated that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company bearing his name, might have played a role in the editor's hasty departure

Recently, Bloomberg News was the subject of a high-profile New York Times article that challenged the company's credibility. Judging by the story, it appeared that one or more disgruntled Bloomberg reporters bitterly complained that a year-long investigation into practices in China would not be published by Bloomberg editors, who were accused of being concerned that the company would be kicked out of China if the story ran. Bloomberg took predictable action in that instance, too. http://nypost.com/2013/11/15/bloomberg-boots-china-leak-scribe-as-staff-layoffs-loom/

The Times story all but accused Bloomberg News of holding or spiking a controversial story to protect the interests of the company's business side -- and, presumably, the outlook for sales of the Bloomberg terminal in China. Bloomberg Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler told the Times that the controversial story had not been spiked. The Bloomberg explanation was that the story wasn't ready to be published.

Finally, Bloomberg received additional coverage this week when it laid off dozens of journalists, including some who had received distinguished journalism awards.

Bloomberg has always been something of a curiosity in the media ecosystem. I once referred to it as the North Korea of journalism because this island nation also has its own customs and policies and the prying outside world generally has to keep its distance. Of course, when a snooping scandal erupts and a furious reporter goes public to the Times with his anger, we learn much more aboutt how Bloomberg News operates than the company would like us to find out.

Fair or not, much of the focus in all of these unrelated cases has centered on Winkler, who has been at the helm since the inception of Bloomberg's news division in 1990. 

Winkler has been wildly ambitious and successful in building up one of the great news organizations in the world. Winkler has relentlessly driven Bloomberg's journalists to excel, a hallmark of his previous employer, the Wall Street Journal. 

Winkler may have pushed too hard at times, though. His public tirades are the stuff of legends inside Bloomberg. Even though Winkler deserves considerable praise for his longevity and his accomplishments, he seldom gets much recognition  because he has emerged as an unpopular figure in many newsrooms that are inhabited by former Bloomberg staffers, with long memories.


Success comes at a price, as Bloomberg is re-learning. Once regarded as an interloper in the journalism community, the company is entrenched now as a behemoth. Yes, Bloomberg is one of the jewels of the media industry, boasting a gargantuan and word-class news agency, radio and television entities and, of course, the charismatic founder, Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg News has come so far so fast that there is bound to be considerable resentment, even jealousy, by much of the outside world. That is how many Bloombergers explain the spate of negative publicity that the company has received on these occasions this year.

Bloomberg presents a fascinating story in the media universe. Mike Bloomberg is poised to play a larger role at the company as he returns from 12 years as New York's mayor. His term ends on Dec. 31. The questions are endless and provocative about Bloomberg News' future. 

Will Mike Bloomberg buy the New York Times Co., as has been widely suspected, and then sell Bloomberg L.P., his company? Will Winkler's authority be undermined by Mike Bloomberg's business ambition (as carried out by Bloomberg's No. 2 executive, Daniel Doctoroff)? Will there be additional layoffs at a company that prided itself on having no such disruptions? Ultimately, what will Mike Bloomberg's departure from city hall mean to the Bloomberg company's fortunes?

Bloomberg executives have fretted that the company might not have the same kind of aura once Hizzoner exits his mayor post. They worry that terminal sales might slow along the way -- and terminal sales are everything at Bloomberg L.P., the parent of the news operaation.

It will be interesting to see if Mike Bloomberg's return to the company (of sorts) will stem the tide of negative publicity. The notion that someone would leak destructive information to the Times is upsetting to Bloomberg staffers and officials. When Mike Bloomberg was on the scene, morale was generally high and there were no leaks. I should know; I worked for Bloomberg News from 1993 to 1999, before bolting to the dot.com world.

I don't doubt that Bloomberg News gets so much attention because rivals are a little jealous of Bloomberg's success and the lofty compensation packages that it has paid out over the years to its employees. I also don't doubt that the incidents I cited above wouldn't get the same level of scrutiny if they had taken place at, say, Thomson Reuters.

Now, Bloomberg News can look at 2014 as a year of transition. Mike will be back -- well, as much as he wants to return, given his busy schedule and desire to re-invent himself after city hall.

The company will continue to get a lot of unwanted publicity if it messes up. Whether it is fair or not, Bloomberg happens to be much more newsworthy when it is receiving criticism. 

If the company wants the unwanted coverage to cease, it has to make sure it remains better at breaking news than making news.

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