Second, this kind of media story is actually rarer than you might think. News “employees” (as the Times calls them) don’t usually put their jobs on the line to talk about stories they feel are being spiked (or “postponed,” as Bloomberg puts it), no matter how bitter the internal arguments. For one thing, whether a big investigative piece is “ready” is always, up to a point, a judgment call, and the line between maintaining editorial standards and obstructionism will always be hazy. There is rarely a “smoking gun” in such matters, so to speak, and it’s a difficult argument to win outright, so most frustrated reporters don’t go public on such matters, even through leaks.
Plus, generally there aren’t that many people involved in an internal controversy like this, so sources are more vulnerable to exposure than they might be in your usual inside-the-newsroom stories, like, for instance, Politico’s gossipy piece on Jill Abramson. The allegations there were so vague and catty that anyone could have been the source. That’s not the case in the Bloomberg affair.
And yet whomever the sources were leaked the dispute anyway, in some detail and at considerable career risk—with little upside. That’s unusual and, in my opinion, it tips the scales in their favor, even though they’re nameless.
Indeed, the sources are unusually blunt in contradicting their bosses accounts. From theFT:
The person familiar with the discussions dismissed Bloomberg’s comments that the story was not ready for publication, saying it had been approved and just needed a Chinese government response. “We had crossed the Rubicon,” the person said. “The story was fully edited, fact checked and vetted by the lawyers.”
This is pushback against the pushback.
Third, this is actually much more important for Bloomberg News as a news operation than the terminal mini-scandal was. In the latter case, the interests at risk were business interests, and Bloomberg LP moved in and stomped out the problem with a shock-and-awe campaign of scrutiny and disclosure. No one doubts that Bloomberg will protect its business interests.
Here, the allegation is that journalism interests were sacrificed. Now, Winkler is quoted in the Wong story as saying on the conference call that his concern was about the organization being thrown out of China and left unable to report the news. That’s a legitimate journalistic concern—sort of—but news organizations and/or reporters are not infrequently thrown out of countries that object to one story or other. It happens. And it’s a problematic reason to not run a true story. After all, who knows what will trigger ejection, and how do you base editorial decisions on that probability? Coincidentally, we see that Reuters’s veteran Paul Mooney was just denied a visa by China. That, of course, speaks well of him and of Reuters.
Bloomberg won’t comment on the accuracy of the conference call anecdote but says flatly that editorial considerations alone drove the decision. As Winkler told the FT: “The reporting as presented to me was not ready for publication. Laurie and other top editors agreed.”
But here’s the rub: Bloomberg is different from other news organizations, and its peculiar terminal-sales model gives it a far larger stake in China than a traditional news organization might have. If the Times gets thrown out of China, it would suffer journalistically, but not so much financially (though now it’s trying to grow its readership base there). If, on the other hand, Bloomberg were to get thrown out of China, it would lose journalistically, yes, but also much more financially. Its $20,000-a-year terminals are sold to mostly financial firms, and Wall Street isn’t the market it used to be (thank goodness). Here’s a snapshot of the company’s growth in the last few years:
2010: 300k subscribers, $6.9B revenue;
2011: 313K subscribers, $7.6B revenue;
2012: 315k subscribers, $7.9B revenue.
Not bad but nothing to write home about.
There is no evidence—at all—that financial considerations had anything to do with the editorial decisions on the stories in question. On the other hand, Bloomberg’s unique business model gives it interests in the market that other news organizations simply do not have. The real parallel might be to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which has often been accused of sacrificing journalism interests to business interests in China. But the comparison would be decidedly unfair to Bloomberg, which, in so many ways, is the anti-News Corp.
Still, the story of Bloomberg News in the last decade or so is that of an upstart news organization—by dint of massive spending, talent recruitment, and sheer, maniacal effort—muscling its way into the forefront of the business-news business, even as it carries a terminal-sized chip on its shoulder.