Bloomberg’s new regime and tensions over the editorial vision

Photo: AP

In April, Zachary Mider’s groundbreaking story on corporate tax inversions won Bloomberg News the first Pulitzer Prize in its 25-year history. When Mider collected his award a month later, at the annual Pulitzer luncheon at Columbia University, the rest of his team was there to applaud him, as were the highest-ranking editors from other winning newsrooms, including Dean Baquet at The New York Times, Marty Baron from The Washington Post, and Gerard Baker of The Wall Street Journal. The missing editors? Bloomberg’s top ranks, including editor-in-chief John Micklethwait and chief content officer Josh Tyrangiel.

Company officials, it turns out, offer quite plausible reasons for not attending. Micklethwait, for example, was said to be visiting the UK for his son’s graduation, while Tyrangiel was said to be in Hong Kong. But fair or not, several editors and reporters in the newsroom took their absence from the lunch as a snub. To them, it symbolized what they fear are the shifting priorities of the new top editors at Bloomberg, ever since Michael Bloomberg returned to the helm in January.**

In the intervening months, the former mayor’s homecoming has reshaped the newsroom, giving rise to dramatic changes to the masthead and a tense struggle over its editorial vision. The regime change has also produced a series of resignations, bitter disagreements over what stories to pursue, and an intricate Kremlinology of the newsroom’s future. One of the chief concerns is that Micklethwait, who replaced Matt Winkler seven months ago, may not be as committed to pursuing the kind of ambitious, hard-edged journalism that brings home Pulitzer Prizes.

The departures in recent months have included several highly respected journalists. The team that Winkler brought in to raise investigative ambitions at Bloomberg News, many lured away from The Wall Street Journal, have been either sidelined or pushed out. Among them were senior executive editor Laurie Hays, who was at one point in line for Winkler’s job until she got nudged aside in favor of Micklethwait; executive editor of enterprise John Brecher, who quit in April, around the same time that Tyrangiel was promoted to chief content officer of Bloomberg LP; and Jonathan Kaufman, the executive editor for company news, who resigned earlier this month after overseeing Mider’s Pulitzer project. Friday’s resignation of star reporter Renee Dudley was the most recent to draw newsroom attention. After her newsy scoop on a Wal-Mart executive, Dudley was hired away to do investigations for Reuters. In September, Daniel Golden, the celebrated investigative journalist who directly edited Mider’s series, will be taking a leave of absence to write a book.

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These developments have all but dismantled an approach that Winkler and Hays created, a system that paired Bloomberg News reporters, some of whom had never written more than 1,000 words before, with experienced enterprise editors who nurtured their skills and ideas into award-winning investigative series. Modeled after legacy newsrooms, it was an approach that yielded investigative series that explored a broad range of issues, and typically took months to report. Notable examples were “Education Inc.,” which was supervised by Kauffman and won Polk and Loeb awards, and Mehul Srivastava’s award-winning series about malnutrition and political corruption in India. Winkler is now editor in chief emeritus.*

The rise of Micklethwait and Tyrangiel, both of whom come from general interest magazines (Micklethwait from The Economist, Tyrangiel, who reports to Micklethwait, from Time and Rolling Stone) has led several editors and reporters to conclude that Mike Bloomberg wants to scale back on a style of enterprise reporting that was imported from The Wall Street Journal in favor of smartly packaged features. These sources also report that for an investigation to pass muster, it must hew to a more restrictive definition of an appropriate Bloomberg subject, namely finance, money, and power. To some, this represents a curtailing of ambition, one that favors softer, magazine-style articles over deep, sustained investigations.

Tyrangiel, who offered limited remarks but wouldn’t sit for a full interview, challenged this interpretation of the new leadership’s journalistic ambitions. He said that his ideal enterprise story “requires digging, an obsessive kind of digging. It also has to be within the boundaries of the Bloomberg audience’s interests.” Micklethwait declined to be interviewed for this piece, as did other senior editors at Bloomberg.

Founded in 1981, Bloomberg developed its empire by focusing almost exclusively on corporate customers who paid a monthly subscription to get lightning-fast reports on business developments, delivered through a terminal that sat on their desk. Bloomberg News was launched in 1990, to deliver financial news to subscribers, and since 2009, has broadened its mandate to include a more general but business-minded audience with an investigative arm, largely under Winkler’s eye, to contextualize the data on the terminals. This approach was part of a strategy to help the terminal business grow, in a moment when its sales were beginning to soften. And as the audience broadened, the terminals remained core to the entire operation’s financial support, with subscriptions now costing up to $24,000 a year.

That’s why it’s often been a thorny endeavor for Bloomberg to launch major investigations of corporate and other targets that pose a conflict of interest, akin to pointing a gun in the customer’s face. The best example came in coverage of China last spring. It began with a groundbreaking probe into the country’s financial corruption, and it established Bloomberg as a major player in the news world, on par with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other top outlets. Then it devolved into a major public relations flap when a second story was unexpectedly spiked. The official position was that the story wasn’t good enough. But comments from Winkler and Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s former chairman, and a transcript newly obtained by Politico, suggest that the story may have been killed over concerns that it would interfere with terminal sales in China. Amanda Bennett, the editor who oversaw the series, resigned shortly after, leading many to speculate that hard-hitting journalism was simply not in the company’s DNA. Others have reported that recent changes in management and editorial approach are influenced by something more fundamental and enigmatic: the former mayor himself, who spends more time in the newsroom than he did even before leaving for city hall.

“My feeling is that Mike Bloomberg came back and took a look and didn’t recognize what he saw,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think he felt the enterprise stuff was beside the point of serving the customer. He’d left behind a small modest business news service and I think that’s what he really wanted, so he got rid of the people that he felt were moving in a direction that he was not familiar with.”

In the vicious turf war that ensued, Tyrangiel, a former music critic and managing editor at Time, ended up winning Mike Bloomberg’s favor (they meet three times a week), as did Micklethwait. But several reporters inside the company who came on board during the previous regime, feel betrayed. “Winkler’s heart and his gut were in the right place, his instincts were really good, and his ambition–it’s what brought me to Bloomberg,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And then Amanda Bennett. They convinced me that they wanted to be the most important source of news in the world. And I bought it because I knew they had the resources.” Another employee agreed, and chalked the strategic changes up to being one of the “mysteries” of the place. “It is a business that added a news service, whereas Reuters is a news service that added a business, and so you can feel a difference in the outlook,” this person said.

The strongest evidence that a philosophical shift is underway surfaces in three internal memos that were given to CJR. Written by Micklethwait, who sends staff memos every week, the first two formulate a plan to be better at breaking news, and go on to identify the type of coverage that he wants to back away from. To numerous employees CJR interviewed, they read as a coded rebuttal to time-intensive enterprise reporting, and raise a red-flag about the new regime’s commitment to the work they most prized.

“Sometimes success causes problems…,” Micklethwait wrote on May 5. “Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the ways we can fight back–by introducing a fast commentary team, by setting up editing hubs, to help dominate the biggest breaking news, by pushing our journalists away from long-term (and sometimes self-indulgent) pieces that few people read, even on weekends.”

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In the second memo, dated June 2, Micklethwait issues a warning: “We have to be cautious about acquiring a reputation for ‘gotcha journalism,’” he writes. He then appears to chastise two reporters for their lack of corporate respect in dealing with a PR person and a company that declined to comment on the record. “There was nothing technically inaccurate about either of the stories, but I am not proud of the reporting in either case and it is hard to believe that either of those companies will be bringing us scoops soon.”

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To some in the newsroom, this was another slap. The idea that reporters should kowtow to PR reps—or be waiting around for “companies to bring them scoops”—was especially troubling. Not only does breaking news require hard-nosed reporting, it also raises the value of the terminals, some employees past and present said.

“We were breaking major M&A news, scoops that involved hundreds, billions, tens of billions of dollars, that were moving whole markets, before the companies were ready to release the news,” said Laurie Hays, the former executive editor who was reportedly let go after a power struggle with Tyrangiel. “There was a lot of great journalism going on and Bloomberg’s core customers were never better served.”

Some employees interpret words like “long-term” and “self-indulgent” as code for projects that clash with Tyrangiel’s sensibilities. In a recent piece for Politico, Luke O’Brien characterized the clash between Tyrangiel and Hays as a battle between “fiefdoms,” pitting the cool kids at Businessweek against the reporters in the trenches at the terminals, who feel “spit on.” These sources also say that it’s become increasingly difficult to get their stories into the pages of the magazine, describing it as a “black box.”

Tyrangiel doesn’t see it that way. He points out that it’s his editorial prerogative to sideline investigations that don’t align with Bloomberg’s core readers.

“For Bloomberg to produce a year long investigation into a topic that is not a significant force in the Bloomberg universe, and is something that other people have covered? No. Not acceptable. We’ve got to aim for bigger, better fish,” said Tyrangiel.

It’s clear that the new leadership has different journalistic tastes than the last, as new leaders usually do. What is less clear is whether Micklethwait and Tyrangiel are planning the type of wholesale upheaval and retrenchment from investigative projects that their detractors fear. Emphasizing longform features over long-term investigations doesn’t necessarily mean that ambitions are being curtailed, or that standards are being lowered; it may, in fact, bring unity and focus to a massive newsroom that’s said to be hobbled by inefficiency and overlap. By implementing tighter story parameters, the new regime has made it harder for reporters to go down rabbit holes, chasing stories they think are worthy but that may not pan out or be especially relevant by the time of publication. By putting a stricter vetting process in place, the new regime has more say over who decides what’s news.

In addition, some of the newsroom’s recent coverage, along with another one of Micklethwait’s memos, show a more nuanced picture. For one, Bloomberg hasn’t exactly backed away from China. Bloomberg News has covered the country extensively, criticizing both its economy and its debt, and since Tyrangiel was named editor of Businessweek (owned by Bloomberg) in 2009, the magazine has gone after the Chinese government for getting rich off of cigarette sales, the tech industry’s reliance on “modern-day slavery,” and a Wall Street mogul’s dealings with a despot, indicating that ambitious, enterprise reporting is alive and well in its pages. Even though a few employees (and critics) questioned the relevance of a 38,000 word essay about coding that appeared in a recent issue, which itself was all about demystifying coding, it was also a sign that Bloomberg’s longform is hardly dead—just merely shifting in substance and form, or playing with ways to grab the web’s attention.

A third memo obtained by CJR tries to clarifiy Tyrangiel’s stance on “long-term” stories. Micklethwait writes:

“What about the really long stories? At times these can be engrossing. But remember two things. First, readers prefer short stories…This doesn’t mean all of our stories need to be a certain length. If we write a medium-length or long story, we should have a compelling reason to do so…you must draw the reader in, charm them, entice them, intrigue them. The writing matters enormously. One reason why I have asked Tyrangiel to look at our long-form journalism is because too many people seem to have forgotten that art.”

The memo also defines core areas of coverage–“finance, business, markets, economics, technology, and power (governments and politics)”–and sheds light on Micklethwait’s outlook on victims, corporate accountability, and when to go deeper, by way of a mea culpa:

Last week we covered two disasters: the Germanwings disaster and the collapse of a building in New York City. In both cases, we did what Bloomberg does best–get a headline out as quickly as possible (and ideally first) and told the basic story. But then the coverage diverged. In the case of the building collapse, we decided there wasn’t anything in that event that provided an opportunity for a uniquely Bloomberg story. We used wires after the first Bloomberg fill. In the case of the Germanwings crash, I was skeptical about whether it was worth sending reporters and a TV crew to the Alps: I was wrong. Not only do air crashes have a particular resonance with our audience, but we produced compelling exclusive coverage on cockpit safety, the responsibility of Lufthansa and a history of pilot suicides. But before we throw the full force of Bloomberg resources at stories, we should discuss and decide what stories make sense for us to pursue.”

The memo articulates a vision that leaves the infamous Bloomberg story guide in the dust. But it also suggests that reporting is a top-down kind of process, something that’s “done by committee,” a concern that was echoed by Washington bureau reporter Dawn Kopecki in a highly critical memo that was leaked to The Huffington Post. Kopecki called out other concerns as well, including a leadership vacuum, a lack of trust in reporters, and a newsroom caught in a “vicious cycle of timidity.” In a moment when reporters feel that their roles are being diminished, it’s easy to see how they might interpret Micklethwait’s vagueness around “what stories make sense,” and who gets to decide, with suspicion and outright distrust.

To several reporters and editors who thought they were building Bloomberg into a world class news organization, under Winkler, Bennett, and Hays, the company no longer holds the promise it once did. They said the memos have been especially demoralizing, and that even though the Pulitzer was a win for Bloomberg News, Tyrangiel’s absence struck a nerve.

In the words of one employee, “I’d call it a cultural revolution. They used to say that their goal was to be the most influential news organization. They don’t say that anymore.”

*Winkler is a member of CJR’s board but had no participation in this story.

**This originally stated January 2014, but Mike Bloomberg officially “came back to the helm” in January of this year. CJR regrets the error.

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Damaris Colhoun is CJR’s digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.