Sometimes professional ethics demand giving the customer what he doesn’t want.
Take, as one dramatic example, the National Football League. For decades, what the NFL wanted from its medical staff was to “get the player back on the field” as fast as possible. And for decades, that’s what NFL medicine delivered, until (and for years after) it became obvious that some players who had suffered concussions were being “rehabilitated” too quickly, leading to repeated brain injuries, some of which were irreversible, and in a few cases, led to incapacitation and suicide.
Starting in the 1980s (I know because, in 1983, for NBC’s pre-game show, NLF ’83, I did the first TV report on the risks of football concussions), a few team physicians started consulting their Hippocratic Oath, and warned the league and its owners that preventive measures were mandatory. Thus, slowly, the NFL come around to recording brain activity baselines for its players and comparing them with test results after someone “had his bell rung.” And doctors and coaches started delivering the news nobody wanted to hear, “you can’t play this week.”
In the news business, professional ethics demand that journalists serve, not just market demand, but their best calculation of the public interest, in deciding what, and how much to report. This is one reason why news is more than just data collection and distribution.
Data delivered quickly to a proprietary 2-screened terminal has always been what Bloomberg LP’s services are all about. Over the past decade, Bloomberg moved into the news business and acquitted itself well, still providing lots of quick snapshots of financial information, but adding to them perceptive, in depth, reporting on a wide variety of subjects.
The rewards in reputation came quickly; financial rewards did not. Even worse, from Bloomberg L.P.’s corporate perspective, some of that niche, long-form, expensive, investigative journalism caused exactly the kind of trouble it should: it pissed off the parties it exposed, most recently the “princelings” of China’s Communist Party elite and the “entrepreneurs” who cut them a slice of the cake in exchange for political protection.
Faced, not just with hostility, but severe cutbacks in orders of the Bloomberg terminals from China, Bloomberg LP did what any unprincipled businessman would do: cut and ran, lopping “dangerous” stories off China distribution of its global news feeds, and more recently, firing their Polk-award winning Hong Kong-based investigative reporter Michael Forsythe.
This week, the Bloomberg trend back to basic data delivery and out of the news business reached an inevitable conclusion, the firing of, a reported 50 to 100 editorial staff.
The details of the firings confirm the movement away from editorial credibility that first became visible months ago, when command of Bloomberg’s media division was handed to Justin Smith, who then gave responsibility for Bloomberg TV news to Josh Tyrangiel, and when the news channel started pre-empting new coverage to run infomercials (paid content which often masquerades as journalism). According to Linette Lopez of Business Insider, “the infomercials are now on Sunday nights from 11:00 pm to 12:00 am, Tuesday to Saturday from 2:00 am to 3:00 am, and Monday from 12:00 am to 2:00 am.”
Smith summed up his “philosophy” of media in his “I’m your new boss” memo to the staff: “Moving quickly is paramount: the faster you move, the more you learn, and the sooner you can optimize for success. Fred Wilson, the VC behind Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and others, argues that ‘speed’” is the quality he seeks out above all others in digital media entrepreneurs. I agree.”
Speed may good for data distribution, but understanding comes more slowly, and in the real world, and for the journalism which feeds on it, “moving quickly” often means misstepping in the wrong direction. Events have their own tempo and will not be rushed for some fact-marketer’s convenience.
In the same memo, Smith also asserted, “There will always be a robust market for quality content. No technology will ever erode this demand. It’s our job to keep our standards high as we experiment. Bloomberg was built on accuracy and insight. We must build on this strength.”
And then he hired as his TV guy, Tourangiel, whose only prior experience in that medium was at MTV, fabled “for quality content,” in its news.
Today, Bloomberg News’ long-time editor in chief Matthew Winkler fired dozens of employees in what is not a cutback in resources, but a series of shifts in deployment of resources. Gone from cultural coverage are the Muse brand and its emphasis on covering books and performances that matter. In its place there will be heightened coverage of “luxury” pursuits. It is as if Architectural Digest became Luxe Magazine, or Consumer Reports became the Nieman-Marcus Catalog.
Sports at Bloomberg News will no longer cover actual events, just the financials behind them.
And investigative journalism? Winkler, is his own memo announcing the firings of several of his top editors and writers, said: “We also have high ambitions for beat and investigative reporting. Our commitment to the best journalism — both this-just-in and in-depth narratives — has never been greater.”
Of course, in the same paragraph he said, that hiring in 2014 would focus on “First Word and Emerging Markets,” both Twittery fast tip and data services.”
To be fair, analyst Felix Salmon, blogging for Reuters, called today’s events the latest setback for Winkler, long a respected traditional newsman, and further evidence of the ascent of Smith and Tourangiel, and Tom Secunda, who Salmon said, is “a co-founder of the company, the other Bloomberg billionaire, the man in charge of basically everything which makes money at Bloomberg, [and] the opposite of a romantic press baron: all he’s interested in is profitability.
Salmon continued, “[Secunda’s] only priority is client service, and giving Bloomberg subscribers whatever they want. And it turns out that Bloomberg subscribers, although they definitely want market-moving news ahead of anybody else, are much less fussed about the broad mass of news stories which don’t move markets”
Sure enough: Bloomberg’s clients want data, numbers, trends. These are the “market movers” who saw a housing boom, with rising numbers of home buyers, rising rates of interest, rising profits for lenders and funders, but stopped searching right there. They never cared about the lack of economic fitness of many of those buyers, the lack of basic honesty among many of the mortgage-sellers, and the complete divorce from reality that characterized a financial industry (rightfully, alas) confident of its own impunity.
Bloomberg’s bottom line tickers don’t talk about that shit.
So, if Secunda and Smith and Tourangiel really do rule Bloomberg now, it should get out of the news business entirely. Data dumping, at high speed, with high energy – that’s what they are good for. Let them make their money that way, just as the NFL spent generations raking in profits from entertaining fans with as the league’s most successful salesman John Madden used to put it, WHAM, BAM, POW, OOF.
Who the hell wants to know about brain damage?
Intelligence is a terrible thing to lay waste, or in Bloomberg News’ own news of the day, lay off.
Selling off the news division is better than selling out the news.