The Rise of Bloomberg News

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By any standard, Michael Rubens Bloomberg is one of the most successful public figures of our age. As the third-term mayor of New York, a billionaire many times over, and in the top tier of global philanthropists, he has stature nonpareil among his mogul peers, none of whom has amassed power in as many ways. His namesake, Bloomberg LP, emerged from the financial upheavals of the past three years more formidable than ever and more tightly controlled now that Merrill Lynch has sold the 20 percent share of the business it owned, valuing the company at $22.5 billion. Surprisingly, for all these superlatives, Bloomberg's role as a shaper of journalism's future still lags the reality it has become. In the tectonic shifts of how information is gathered and distributed, Bloomberg News has become one of the world's largest and increasingly influential news organizations.

The senior management and editors of Bloomberg News now include (to the point of possibly being crowded ) such stars as Amanda Bennett, the features editor, who was managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and has just been named chair of the Pulitzer Prize board; Al Hunt, who was for years the most visible presence of the Wall Street Journal in Washington and is now Bloomberg's executive Washington editor; Norman Pearlstine, who was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal in one of its best periods, was later was editor-in-chief of Time Inc., and is now chairman of the new Bloomberg Business Week; and Andy Lack, whose considerable resume includes being president of NBC News. The editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News is Matt Winkler, whom Bloomberg hired in 1990 from a then seemingly indomitable Dow Jones as the first employee of a fledgling news service because of his expertise in bonds. There are about 2,600 journalists working for Bloomberg News now in the headquarters tower on Lexington Avenue and in major bureaus in places like Beijing, London, and Chicago (which has 22 people, last time I checked).

About 600 of these news people work for Bloomberg television, which is available on cable systems around the world. In Ho Chi Minh City last year, a young Vietnamese journalist described to me, movingly, how she and her colleagues watched the Obama inauguration on the channel. I think it was then that I began to understand that this financial data service, in which news was considered a marginal loss leader to support the lucrative terminals, was being transformed into a multi-platform, international enterprise intent on parity (at a minimum) with the Associated Press and Thomson-Reuters, in financial news of course, but also in politics and investigative reporting. The competitive edge among these enterprises for news breaks and prize-winning takeouts has started to make a difference in coverage. In its award for "exemplary reporting on social justice issues," The Sidney Hillman Foundation hailed a Bloomberg project titled "The Fight for Transparency" for being the first "to determine the true cost to the taxpayer of the Federal Bailout of Wall Street."

The decline in the resources at metropolitan dailies, the draconian cutbacks in network television news, and the dominance of polemic over substance on the cable channels are what make this era so unnerving to news traditionalists. The ascendancy of Bloomberg and Thomson-Reuters, which is also clearly embarked on a significant expansion of its staffing and visibility, does not offset the rest of the industry's problems, but it does reflect substantial investment and, in the estimate of their astute owners, the prospect of profits from information that goes well beyond the masses of data that were the mainstays on the legendary Bloomberg software and the Reuters and Dow Jones runners up.

To visit the Bloomberg headquarters for the first time is literally awesome. The building amenities are lavish (and depending on your taste maybe even excessive). The rows of terminals are arrayed in spaces all open to light and architectural flourishes. Fish tanks filled with exotic specimens, art and flowers divide the building into sectors with journalists, sales teams, and code writers in their respective banks. In particular, the multinational collection of engineers said to be mainly from China, South Asia, Russia, and Israel provide a buzz of technical intensity that clearly is the underpinning for the Bloomberg terminal's assortment of services and breathtaking speed.

In the hierarchy of value to Bloomberg LP, it is the terminals that drive the business. The most extensive details of the company's history and revenues are in Joyce Purnick's biography, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, published by PublicAffairs last fall, and Carol Loomis' 2007 Fortune profile, "Bloomberg's Money Machine." But the standing of journalism in the company is clearly on the upswing. The monthly Bloomberg Markets magazine, the acquisition (at a fire-sale price) of Business Week, and the syndication of its news output to hundreds of newspapers means that Bloomberg reporters now have been catapulted into the front rows on most major beats.

The emphasis is still on financial data, but with so strong a revenue base and a leadership team that prides itself on clout, the ambition and range of stories is growing. There was another coming out of sorts at this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. President Obama was flanked on the dais by Winkler and the correspondents' association' president, Bloomberg's Edwin Chen. The hottest after party was co-hosted by Bloomberg and Vanity Fair. There are many strands to the still-unfolding Bloomberg saga. The impact of the man and the enterprise he founded on journalism is now among the most interesting.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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