With other news organizations—the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the like—compromising the news can carry existential costs. The news is all they have. That’s why Bernard Kilgore’s landmark decision at the still-shaky Wall Street Journal in 1954 to face down General Motors over stories its then-biggest advertiser didn’t like made perfectly rational business sense over the long term. “When a newspaper begins to suppress, whether at the behest of its advertisers or to please some special segment of business, it will soon cease to be of any service to its advertisers or to business because it will soon cease to have readers,” as a Journal editorial at the time put it (read all about it in Dick Tofel’s Kilgore biography).
At Bloomberg, it’s really not the case that the fate of the company rides on readers’ faith in its news.
When I spoke to Winkler in 2008, he insisted in no uncertain terms on the news division’s importance to the company. He said, for instance, the Bloomberg terminal had (at the time) 30,000 functions, and “news” was consistently hit more than all but ten other functions, less than instant messaging, stock quotes and the “cancel” key, for example, but more than the rest:
Thirty thousand functions on the Bloomberg! Thirty thousand functions on the Bloomberg! Now, I’m going to ask you another question. Of these ten, which of these ten is the one that’s invented at Bloomberg, okay. It’s not a commodity. Now, we just walked through this. Message. Everybody’s got it. [Stock] quote everybody’s got it. Equity. Everybody’s got it. … The only thing in the top ten most used functions that was invented at Bloomberg is news. And guess what? It gets hit every day… And so all these other functions are there for everybody to use, so when someone says, you know, it’s just the machine and it enhances the machine, very true! It sure enhances the machine. It enhances the machine so much that it’s one of the top ten most used functions on the Bloomberg and there are 30,000 of them.
I’m inclined to side with Winkler on the news division’s importance, but I’m not sure it’s a given.
But here’s one thing that is a given: trying to confine a professional news organization to “market-moving” news makes no sense on any level, even if it were possible. In the last decade, Bloomberg News has crossed the threshold from marginal financial wire to mainstream news powerhouse, boasting 2,400 journalists in 150 bureaus. Both those numbers are huge. Put that many reporters in the field—particularly after the talent-hiring binge Bloomberg has been on—and they are bound to come across stories that transcend breaking news, stories that readers would want, and deserve, to know. Any news organization that tries to confine itself to an artificially narrow definition of news is asking for internal conflict and is buying a one-way ticket to second-tier status. And all of that is completely out-of-step with the overall Bloomberg culture of excellence. It just doesn’t work. Bloomberg News used to be a marginal, quotidian wire. It can’t go back.
And here’s why it doesn’t want to. Market-moving news (I assume we’re talking about earnings, M&A scoops, executive appointments, and the like) is all about the short-term horizons at the expense of the big picture. Anyone who thinks the fact of endemic corruption at the top the Chinese leadership isn’t important or relevant to investors in China—and everyone else—in the medium to long term isn’t thinking straight. It also grossly underestimates terminal subscribers’ range of interests.
I’m not saying anyone would put it that way, but that’s rather the choice as framed by the Secunda/Winkler debate, which is not new to journalism by any means.
This kind of heavy lifting by news organizations will always involve difficult conflict and confrontation with powerful governments and institutions. If you think you can outsource such work to the Times or others, that’s a business decision. But terminal users will be relying on others for the big stuff, and that’s probably a bad idea.
You don’t have to go back too far to realize that we’ve seen to this movie before, and recently. The big picture, and, yes, systemic corruption, was exactly what was missing journalistically in the run-up to the crash of 2008, as (plug alert) I discuss at considerable length in my book.
So in the Secunda/Winkler debate, even from a narrow investors’ point of view, Winkler is right. And while Winkler tries to quantify the newsroom’s value by how often it is clicked, the fact is it has added enormously to the Bloomberg brand as a world-class organization, even if the value is difficult to quantify.