The Winkler Way—Okay?

With Bloomberg News at a crossroads, an audience with its maximum leader

I am deep inside Bloomberg LP’s global headquarters, the Lexington Avenue office of the financial-information giant.

With its post-modernist design—sweeping interior vistas, bristling clusters of computers, oversized screens blinking up-to-the-minute sales figures, streaming stock tickers, TV studios, financial radio chatter in various languages, swoopy futuristic red couches, puzzling art—it conveys a sense of energy, power, certainly, but mostly, for me, of self-containment. The free bananas, breakfast cereals, energy bars and coffee available near the elevators on Level Six do nothing to detract from the sensation that this is a place where all biological needs are provided for. You can leave, but you don’t have to and it’s not encouraged.

I am in a glass-walled conference room with Matthew Winkler, the powerful chief of Bloomberg News, and Judith Czelusniak, Bloomberg’s PR chief, who is gamely working a Bloomberg terminal to help Winkler explain what much of the world does not understand about what he calls the “Bloomberg Way.”

The topic turns to a delicate subject, and I tread carefully as Winkler is known to have a temper: Is it true that Winkler, a famously iron-fisted manager, has banned the use of the word “but,” from Bloomberg copy, as well as “despite,” “however,” along with adverbs and modifiers generally? I add, “There’s sort of a top-down feel to it… You know, um, these are pros, and, I …”

“To answer that question,” Winkler breaks in. He begins to unwind an answer that grows more emphatic and intense, even angry, the longer it continues:

David Pauly, who spent [eighteen] years at Newsweek and was Maynard Parker’s go-to guy when Maynard Parker said, scramble the jets we’re ripping up the magazine—here we go at Newsweek—okay?—he turned to David Pauly who joined Bloomberg in 1991 and said, “Would ya please rewrite this?” and David Pauly has been with us every since, okay? He certainly knows how to write. He’s had a “but” or two and a “despite” or two and all sorts of other things in his columns, but he knows what I’m talking about, okay? And he’s never obviously had a problem with it, okay? And if you ask anybody in the profession of journalism about David Pauly, people at Newsweek, they’ll tell you this is a writer’s writer. This is a guy who knows how to write better than anybody. He’s been at Bloomberg since 1991. Okay? So all I’m saying is for people who understand what we’re trying to do here—and again my son who you just met who walked out the door when you showed up and who’s a student at Columbia University—okay?—and got eight fives on eight APs—okay?—he took the Bloomberg Way in high school, and if you ask him he’ll tell you the Bloomberg Way was the single best thing that he used to teach him how to write, and when he got to Columbia University, he said he could write an essay a lot better than other people, and “I gotta tell you, dad, it’s because of what the Bloomberg Way did for me,” and his older brother went to Swarthmore, who is even more distinguished as an academic, did the same thing, so I did try this out on a bunch of kids, okay? And they didn’t find it confining, and they didn’t find it you know restricting. They actually found it liberating, and it enabled them to compete with high school students who went to elite schools—because they went to public schools—and they did just fine, and they learned how to write, and they grew up with the Bloomberg Way.


Me: “There you go.”

(Pauly, a Bloomberg columnist, says he was actually a writer, not an editor, at Newsweek and that Winkler misstates his relationship with Parker. “I was not anywhere near his right-hand man,” he says. But he says Winkler is right about the main point: “I can get along with the Bloomberg Way.”)

Few publications reflect their editors more than Bloomberg’s wire does Winkler. He started it in 1990, recruited by Mike Bloomberg himself to supplement with text—news—the gusher of financial data and analytics in his remarkable two-screen terminal. Winkler reads an astounding number of Bloomberg stories and all stories over 850 words. He writes editorial notes for the staff down to the tiniest detail. He co-wrote the Bloomberg News stylebook and journalistic manifesto, The Bloomberg Way. His comings and goings, musings and edicts are carefully followed by an anxious Bloomberg staff.

A few days earlier, Bloomberg had announced with some fanfare the hiring of Norman Pearlstine, a famous ex-Wall Street Journal editor and ex-Time Inc. executive. The reaction of Bloomberg’s competitors in financial journalism was curious:

“They’re not fundamentally a journalistic organization,” said Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of The Journal and former colleague of Mr. Pearlstine’s. “It’s about the machine. The journalism promotes the machine.”

The quote comes from a New York Times story, the headline of which also helped to capture Bloomberg’s anomalous position.

Bloomberg L.P. Fills Post, Suggesting Shift to News

How, I wondered, can an organization employing an army of 2,300 reporters writing 4,000 news articles each day “shift to news”? By writing 5,000 a day?

The paradox led to me to wonder about Bloomberg’s lonely orbit in the financial news constellation, and what, if anything, would change under Pearlstine, who will be parallel to Winkler in the organization, both reporting to Bloomberg Chief Executive Dan Doctoroff. It also made me wonder about the Bloomberg Way.

I placed a call to Czelusniak to ask about the word bans. She joked about “urban myths” that had surround Bloomberg’s intense work environment and offered to have me meet Winkler, who was flying in on a red-eye from Bloomberg’s bureau in Rio de Janeiro. The next morning, I found myself shaking hands with the editor in chief himself, looking surprisingly fresh in his bow tie and pressed blue shirt. What followed was a wide-ranging interview on Bloomberg News, its relative influence, the significance of the Pearlstine hiring, the word bans and more.

A graduate of Kenyon College, Winkler was a Wall Street Journal reporter when the future mayor called. From six people at the beginning, the company has grown to 2,300 newsroom employees, an astounding number that is three times the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal (which has 750 reporters and editors), four times that of the Financial Times (540) and twenty times the size of The New York Times’s Business Day staff (110). Bloomberg has 135 bureaus, again, an eye-popping number. Its terminal readership is more than 330,000, including about 273,000 Bloomberg subscribers, generally financial-services professionals, corporate executives and other well-heeled, well-educated people, and the people who share the machines. Bloomberg’s wire is syndicated to more than 400 newspapers. Winkler won the 2007 Loeb lifetime-achievement award from the UCLA business school.

While the vast majority of Bloomberg offerings are grind-it-out financial pieces of a few hundred words, lately it has won attention for some longer-form stories appearing in its Bloomberg Markets magazine. Among them, a piece on slave labor, pension funds buying trash securities, and work I particularly liked on insurance-industry abuses of policyholders. It also offers coverage of the arts, education, and other non-business topics.

(Bloomberg News hasn’t been written about much, although Bloomberg LP has. Here is a good story by Fortune’s Carol Loomis.)

Even so, media people understand Bloomberg to be a regimented, hierarchical organization where fear is in no short supply. Current and former Bloomberg reporters regard Winkler as a temperamental and sometimes arbitrary leader given to issuing edicts that no one has the courage to contradict. A former reporter recalls how one of Winkler’s offhand gripes, about reporters sitting around reading newspapers, became transmogrified into an outright ban on newspaper reading in the newsroom. The misunderstanding was ultimately cleared up. A current reporter describes the tension on the fifth floor, where Winkler and his deputies preside, as palpable—and eases just as palpably as one walks downstairs to newsrooms below.

Some reporters believe their movements are monitored to the extent that when they fail to touch their keyboard for fifteen minutes, a dot next to their name in the Bloomberg computer system shifts from green (meaning, basically, “logged in and active”) to yellow (for “idle”). This is technically true but in fact the dot system applies to all Bloomberg users, including customers. Winkler himself didn’t know the actual meaning of the yellow light when I asked him about it. Czelusniak says Bloomberg’s system is designed to allow staffers to get touch with each other quickly and to know, for instance, whether it’s worth messaging someone knowing they may not be at their desk.

An excellent Columbia Journalism Review story, though thirteen years old, describes sweatshop-like newsroom working conditions and included a colorful quote from Barbara Garson, author of the book The Electronic Sweatshop: “Bloomberg,” she said, “is hell.”

Winkler for his part was unapologetic in the piece. “We’re not for everybody, but we’re building something here and we have to work like hell to do it,” we quoted him then.

Our recent conversation was more or less one-way—a stream of facts, figures, names, dates and places—with Czelusniak looking up supporting information on the Bloomberg terminal, which involves typing a command and a key labeled: GO. I occasionally stammer a question.

Winkler’s message is that Bloomberg is as good or better than anyone else, and just as influential. The fact flow is relentless.

He says, for instance, that the Bloomberg terminal has 30,000 functions, and “news” is 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.

“Let me show you something,” he says to me, then tells Czelusniak: “Type BNAW, GO.” On a screen flashes the Bloomberg page with the awards Bloomberg has won.

We’re not a news organization. Hello? We’ve been winning awards since 1993. The only award we haven’t won is the Pulitzer Prize. We were a finalist, but we haven’t won it. But we’ve won everything else. But we’ve been winning them since 1992. So, our peers in the profession—people like you, they make those decisions, not me. Every year, we show up and say, “here’s what we did,” and every year we win the Polk Award, we win the Loeb Award, We win the National Press Foundation Award. We win British Journalist of the Year Award. Every category The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are in, we’ve won, too.

(Bloomberg won a single Polk, in 2005, for a twelve-part series called “Big Pharma’s Shameful Secrets,”on improper drug-testing practices and regulatory laxity, by David Evans, Michael Smith, and Liz Willen.)

And another thing, he says. What about the people who work here?

And look who’s here. If we’re not a news organization, would you tell me who Al Hunt is? Would you tell me who Rich Jaroslovsky is? Will you tell me who Phil Kuntz is? Those are three people from The Wall Street Journal. Would you tell me who Janet Guyon is? Another person from The Wall Street Journal.

Me: “I didn’t know…”

How about Amanda Bennett?

Me: “Those are all sort of relatively recent hires [I have no idea what point I was trying to make here]…”

No, we can go back a long time.

Me: “No no no…”

How about [the late Monroe] Bud Karmin won a Pulitzer prize in 1968 [for work in 1967] for The Wall Street Journal, joined Bloomberg in [1991] , okay?

Me: No no I was just making a point that you…

No! I’m just saying Ron Henkoff joined us in 1998 when was the economics editor for Newsweek International, then he went to to the board of editors at Fortune magazine [An Audit correction: An earlier version misquoted Winkler as saying that Henkoff had worked at Forbes; in fact, Winkler had it right; it was Fortune], then came to Bloomberg in 1998—last I checked that was ten years ago. That’s not a relatively recent hire as the editor of our magazine. Laura Colby came with him—half his staff.

Me [helpfully]: Charlie Babcock?

Charlie Babcock! Washington Post! I mean, when you look at who joined Bloomberg over the years, and I don’t mean just in the past three years, but I mean the past ten years or the past fifteen years. Felix Kessler! Joined Bloomberg in 1992. Who is Felix Kessler? He was the Paris bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. He was a writer for Fortune magazine. Joined us in 1992! Is that good enough?

I sink deeper and deeper into my chair. I detect an absence of nitrogen in the air. Or maybe it’s a surplus.

Pearlstine, Winkler says, it more than just a dot on this upward graph of talent. He says it was “the dream, the wish, the fantasy” to hire his old mentor, who had hired Winkler to the Journal back in the 1980s. The hiring is a signal that:

Bloomberg is pretty serious about being serious about news. Not that it wasn’t, but if you want an iconic moment in journalism, here’s one for you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re not familiar with Bloomberg, here’s an iconic moment. We’re showin’ ya’, we’re not tellin’ ya’. He just walked in the door, okay? What else do you need to know? Do any of these [competing] journalistic platforms right now have somebody who’s done all the things that Norman Pearlstine has done in news?

Me: “You mean, elsewhere around…”

Outside of Bloomberg, you can count on your hand the people who have done all the things that Norm Pearlstine has done. There are not too many people like him—if any. And all I’m saying is that if people want to understand what I mean when I’m saying by the comment “influence and stature,” here’s an example: we’re serious. We were serious yesterday. We were serious ten years ago. But ya know what? We’re never gonna stop being serious. We’re just going to keep pushing. This isn’t the end. This is the end of the beginning, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Me: What’s Pearlstine going to do?

He’s not here yet. He’ll be here June 2, so on June 3 we’ll have some idea of what he’s going to do, and June 4 and June 5, and so on. Suffice it to say, what I envision is the day-to-day operations of Bloomberg News isn’t materially going to change from today, a month from now—it’s going to be as it has. I’m going to continue to do many of the things if not all of the things that I’m doing, which is to make sure every single subject we are reporting on that we are as good as we can possibility be. That we’re doing the best, and best is always yet to come. That’s my job.

I think I can benefit enormously from having someone like Norm looking over everything that I do and everything we do and saying, “You know, have you tried this, have you thought of that, maybe you want to try it this way. Maybe you want to think about doing this way.”

For me, I love to have people who are challenging me everyday. Who are you really thinking about all the things that Bloomberg readers, viewers, listeners, need to get—want to get everyday. Are you thinking about that? That’s my job. And to have someone like Norm who’s been there, done that in so many ways and is so knowledgeable, so networked, and skilled in understanding stories and understanding news judgment, this is a gift.

If he didn’t exist I’d want to invent him.

I see.

But, wait, I’m thinking: All those names and awards are fine, but what about the great issues of the day: executive compensation, tainted imports and regulatory laxity, predatory lending, middle-class income stagnation, shifts in the consumer credit industry— any one of a number of items? An argument can at least be made that The New York Times, with one-twentieth the staff, has contributed far more to the public’s understanding of any of those.

Me: “[The Times’s] impact on the public discussion is quite profound given the fact that it has 100 people.”

Well, wait a second. But you’re looking at The New York Times as a newspaper published in New York, whose circulation is mostly to the New York region, isn’t that right?

Me: “I suppose so.”

Whereas Bloomberg is all over the world. And so when you talk about weight, you know people in Indonesia are not reading The New York Times every day. That’s not the first read. A lot of people in Indonesia are reading Bloomberg their first read every day. A lot of people in New Zealand are reading Bloomberg as their first read everyday. In Australia. In Germany. In France. In Belgium. In Holland. In Italy, okay? In the UK. In Canada. In Brazil, where I was last night, Bloomberg is the first read. So when you talk about weight, let’s go global, and let’s starting comparing Bloomberg to all these other platforms in a global context. And they’re not even in the game.

The thing that you’re missing in your paradigm here is the audience. Our audience is global. It’s 24/7. It’s 365 days a year. We’re writing for the folks back home. We’re not writing for the guys in Congress and the ladies in Congress or the chattering class in New York or Washington, or Columbia University or at Berkeley…

Me: “Oh.”

We are writing for a global audience, and they know it. And the proof that they know it is that they’re spending $1,500 per terminal.

Me: “Right.”


Me: “You know even in the newspaper [not sure what my question is here]…

Just scroll down. These are the newspapers that get Bloomberg News, okay? These are the newspapers that get Bloomberg News, okay? This is the aggregate circulation, okay? Including the Times, I might add. Okay, and what you’re not including is how many times Bloomberg writes a story, and it is invented at Bloomberg…Like, I’ll give you an example that Blackrock is gonna buy the bad bank from UBS. Worldwide exclusive three o’clock, two weeks ago. On Bloomberg News …Okay, it was on the front page of the Financial Times a day later. Where did they get it? They got it on Bloomberg … Did they attribute it to Bloomberg? Absolutely not. Does that happen everyday? Absolutely. [An FT spokeswoman declined to comment.] Okay, there is a conceit in the newspaper world that because a real time news organization like Bloomberg breaks something, “Oh that must come from a wire service,” and somehow that can’t possibly be original because it came from a wire service. Well guess what? The lead story [nervous laugh from Czelusniak] the lead story in the Financial Times on Blackrock two week ago was a worldwide exclusive twenty-four hours earlier on the Bloomberg

Me: “That’s bad manners…”

When your talking about setting the agenda and influence the reality is we are setting the agenda. It’s just that the chattering class, which are still hooked on The New York Times, doesn’t quite grasp that because The New York Times doesn’t voluntarily share every day how much content, original content, it gets from Bloomberg that it then decides then to share with its readers and it doesn’t always attribute to Bloomberg and the same thing is true with lots of other newspapers. But you know what? They’re a customer, and I’m happy they pay their bills on time.

Me: “Got it.”

An elevator later transports me back to the Earth’s surface. I find myself on Lexington Avenue holding a Bloomberg gift bag—clock, coffee cup, pen, keychain, Bloomberg Rubik’s Cube. I gratefully unfurl my new Bloomberg umbrella against a cold, drenching rain.

I climb into a taxi. Exhale.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.