It has become accepted wisdom in future-of-news debates that the church-state divide between the newsroom and the business side was something of an archaism, one more legacy that legacy news had to shed.
The current thinking is that reporters have to at least be aware of how their paychecks are earned, and it’s hard to argue with this narrow point, as far as it goes.
Jay Rosen frames the question of editorial involvement in the business side as empowering journalists:
Being ignorant and uninvolved in “the business side” has been a disaster for the newsroom. For all its strengths, separation of church and state also meant no seat at the table when the big decisions were made. Anyone who doesn’t want to know what the numbers say should not be trusted with editorial decisions. Listening to demand is smart journalism, so is giving people what they have no way to demand because they don’t know about it yet. If you are good at one, the other goes better.
The problem with the argument is that it downplays the “strengths” of the church-state separation and overlooks potentially ruinous long-term costs of eroding it.
Nowhere has the church-state concept been rethought quite so radically as at Bloomberg LP, which is not a legacy news organization at all but an old new-media news organization, founded in 1981 as an innovative financial information intranet and growing to a $9 billion a year behemoth today. As the future mayor put it himself in his 1997 biography: “Most news organizations never connect reporters and commerce. At Bloomberg, they’re as close to seamless as it can get.”
Bloomberg is now in crisis after allegations surfaced that a lengthy investigation on official corruption in China was spiked at the behest of top editor Matthew Winkler, who, according to unnamed sources, cited fears that Bloomberg’s journalists would be expelled from the country. As I pointed out the other day, and as the Times makes explicit today, Bloomberg also has huge commercial interests in China, an enormous potential market for its terminals, the bulk of Bloomberg’s business.
Winkler and Bloomberg LP’s position is that the investigation in question was never spiked, but was simply not ready and postponed until it was, and that the organization remains as committed as ever to investigations. If true, and it may be, that would make this a non-crisis over a non-story.
But, it must be remembered, the allegations here originated from Bloomberg’s own staff, four unnamed Bloomberg employees quoted by the Times and insiders quoted in the Financial Times. As I wrote, in this age of anxiety, newsroom rebellions of this sort are rare. Bloomberg responded to the revelations, not with introspection, but by suspending one of the reporters involved in the spiked/postponed story, Michael Forsythe, who has announced on Twitter that he is no longer with the company.
I can confirm that I have left Bloomberg News. That's all I'm going to say for now.— Mike Forsythe 傅才德 (@PekingMike) November 19, 2013
Yesterday’s Times story, via Amy Chozick, Nathaniel Popper, Edward Wong, and David Carr, peels back the curtain on an internal debate on the “future of news” at Bloomberg. The debate as reported by the Times is framed, eerily, just as Felix Salmon framed it a few days ago: whether to pull out the stops and go for the great stories, no matter how ambitious or provocative to potential customers, or to focus instead on narrower, market-moving news and headlines, a view said to be held by Thomas F. Secunda, who founded the company with Mr. Bloomberg and oversees financial products and services, where the money is.
“We shouldn’t be doing any news other than what makes money for our readers,” Mr. Secunda has frequently said, according to one longtime employee.
(A spokesman is quoted in the Times as saying Secunda “thought market-moving news was the most important but not the only journalism the company should be producing.”)
Or as an unnamed “former senior executive” puts it:
“If you have a $9 billion company that is about to be crippled by a news division that loses $100 million a year, shouldn’t you take a breath and think about the implications of what you are doing?”
In fact, it’s a fair question. Bloomberg News’s worth to Bloomberg LP has always been ambiguous. Would the financial data provider have grown to its size and prominence without a news organization at all or by providing news offered by other financial wires? The hard fact is that Bloomberg LP is a data provider first; its journalism is a distant second, an add-on, one more data stream added to “the box” to make the $2,000-a-month subscription that more valuable. That makes the church-state equation that much more complicated.