When Justin Smith arrived from The Atlantic to last fall to take over the sprawling media group at Bloomberg LP, the move was greeted by hosannas in the media and journalism circles.
Here was the young, digitally savvy executive credited with playing a crucial role in pulling a 156-year-old monthly from the brink of extinction coming to an immensely profitable company bristling with technological knowhow but struggling to break out of its narrow financial niche and into the media mainstream. Soon after arriving, Smith issued a memo announcing a “hundred day strategy process,” toward a new plan that would raise Bloomberg’s visibility beyond financial circles and, perhaps, help transform the media industry itself.
That was 200 days ago. Since then, the launch of a key product has been delayed, an important designer has bolted, and some Bloomberg editorial staffers are expressing frustration about the pace of decision-making and confusion over the project’s aims.
“It’s still not clear what we’re trying to do,” said one Bloomberg Media executive who is familiar with the planning. “What do we want to be when we grow up?”
Smith arrived last fall to take charge of—and expand upon—a jumble of media assets that include a sprawling TV operation said to post losses of around $100 million a year (an improvement from a few years ago, when losses exceeded $300 million); Businessweek, which posts losses of some $30 million annually; a large radio operation; digital video; Bloomberg Markets, a financial monthly; Bloomberg Pursuits, a luxury magazine; and Bloomberg.com, which publishes selections from the thousands of stories generated by Bloomberg News, a massive newsroom of 2,400 journalists primarily producing for Bloomberg’s famous financial-data terminals.
Smith has described his plans in internal memos and
But the broad goals still don’t add up to a rationale for the enterprise. Bloomberg LP is already immensely profitable by selling a single product, its famous—and costly—terminals, rendering normal financial targets, and the value of casual Web traffic and TV viewers, moot. Bloomberg executives say increasing “impact” is an important objective, leaving open the question of what that means, and the main one: impact to what end?
In March, Smith made a long-anticipated presentation of his strategic vision (missing the 100-day target by a couple of months), including a lengthy Power Point presentation, to members of Bloomberg’s management committee, which includes, among others, the ex-mayor; Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff; Matt Winkler, top editor of Bloomberg News; and Tom Secunda, who runs the company’s massive terminal operation, which generates 85 percent of Bloomberg LP’s revenue.
The detailed strategy presentation was not widely shared internally, though some elements have leaked. According to people with knowledge of the strategy, it has three main elements: 1. Fix the sprawling and money-losing television operation; 2. Ramp up Bloomberg’s conferencing business; 3. The centerpiece, separating Bloomberg content into five editorial “verticals” across a range of digital platforms (Web, mobile, etc.): a general business site, Bloomberg Business, that will replace Businessweek.com; technology; a luxury site drawing on the company’s Pursuits magazine; and Bloomberg Markets, which would draw on mostly financial coverage produced by the vast Bloomberg News operation. Last, a Bloomberg Politics site has already been announced, to much fanfare, featuring the high-profile Washington journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of Game Change. Halperin and Heilemann are expected to anchor a daily politics show after the close of markets.
The first setback surfaced when designer Richard Turley, the creative force behind buzz-creating covers at Bloomberg Businessweek, abruptly decamped last April to take a job at MTV. His departure was accompanied by a torrent of regret and praise from the media press, which ran greatest-hits tributes to his most “awesome” covers. Turley didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
Then the launch of the business vertical, Bloomberg Business, which had initially been targeted for September, was pushed back to the end of the year.
But the biggest problem, some inside the company say, is that basic goals of the project remain opaque. “There’s a leadership vacuum,” says the executive.
In an interview, Smith said he has been quite clear about the aims of the enterprise, which he described as three-fold: influence (which includes growing the digital audience), innovation, and “commercial success,” in that order. [
innovation, growing the digital audience, and broadly achieving “commercial success.” UPDATE: the sentence was changed to clarify Smith’s comments from a lengthy interview.]