Cult of Bloomberg
Eleven years ago, Michael Bloomberg added Bloomberg News to his financial information service. Its corporate culture, and the man he put in charge of it, offer a window into how Bloomberg, would-be mayor of New York, likes to get things done.
"Be careful of this word, bet; I don't want to characterize the stock market as a gambling casino."
It's a cold, gray Tuesday morning in March. Inside Bloomberg News's sleek Park Avenue headquarters in New York City, editors are sitting around a long, blond-wood conference table, each staring at his machine -- his "Bloomberg" -- and critiquing the day's lead stories. Presiding over the meeting is Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg News's editor in chief. Winkler's voice rises often, and it's clear his opinion is the one that counts.
"Take out 'shot back'....Let the reader decide whether he 'shot back' or not, okay? We keep making these mistakes in these kinds of stories....We're constantly characterizing, describing. Just don't do it."
The Bloomberg machine is a flat-screen computer named after its billionaire inventor, Michael Bloomberg, 59, the former Salomon Brothers trading partner turned entrepreneur who in April opened an official exploratory committee for his Republican candidacy in the New York City mayoral race. Twenty years ago, after he was laid off from Salomon Brothers with a $10 million severance package, he had a blockbuster idea: He'd sell to his former colleagues on Wall Street a self-contained data bank that, with a punch of the keys, would offer real-time pricing for stocks, bonds, commodities, and markets, plus histories and analyses on virtually every economy, market, company, and industry. It has since become indispensable to Wall Street and beyond. Today, Bloomberg leases some 157,000 terminals (at a cost of $1,640 per month for one terminal and $1,285 per month if you lease more than one) to traders, investors, analysts, government offices, central banks, and commercial banks around the world.
According to John McConville, who edits Inside Market Data, an industry newsletter, Reuters is still the market leader in terminals -- it has sold 285,000 terminals out of an industry total of 960,000 (or 30 percent), compared to Bloomberg's 150,000 (or 16 percent). But in the $7.1 billion industry, Bloomberg's terminal-related revenue of $2.4 billion exceeded Reuters's by $100 million. That's because Bloomberg is more expensive. "For each of its terminals, Bloomberg is getting roughly 80 to 90 percent more," says McConville. "Those numbers are mind-boggling."
"Let's look at this word, cut. It's proliferated like rabbits. Try lowered, reduced, trimmed. Trimmed is preferable to 11 cuts."
In 1990, Bloomberg added the news wire to the machine's menu, tapping Wall Street Journal reporter Winkler, now 46, to create it. Winkler had impressed Bloomberg when he cowrote a front-page Journal story on Bloomberg's company two years before. Bloomberg invited Winkler to lunch and asked what it would take to get into the news business. "I think we decided six people would be enough to do it," Bloomberg recalls. Winkler remembers it differently: "I said, 'You probably need five reporters in New York, five reporters in Tokyo, five reporters in London.'"
Eleven years later, Bloomberg News has over 1,100 reporters and editors in 79 bureaus worldwide and is considered a formidable competitor to the 150-year-old Reuters wire and the 100-year-old Dow Jones wire. Bloomberg News, once dismissed as "a bunch of young people [whom] we should be wary about trusting," by former New York Times wire editor Fred Eliason (who later came to rely on Bloomberg himself), is now an influential financial news wire in its own right. Even Dow Jones spokesman Dick Tofel volunteers his respect. "I think that Bloomberg News is the second- or third-best news wire in the world," Tofel says, "and it came from no place not all that long ago, so that's impressive." Eliason, who for nine years decided which wire stories the Times should run in its Business section, is more generous. "They got good very fast," he says. "Overall, their report, compared with any of the other wires I was using, was more comprehensive....If we had ever had a situation where [the Times] said, 'We have to cut back to one wire,' the only one we could have possibly chosen was Bloomberg."
"Let's make sure we have one two-paragraph template set up for stocks, bonds, and currencies for right after the Fed moves."
Bloomberg posts 4,000 stories daily, many of which are the basis for reports on Bloomberg Radio, which has more than 200 affiliates; Bloomberg Television, a 24-hour network that airs in seven different languages; and Bloomberg.com, a website that runs stories from the news wire. Some of those pieces evolve into features for Bloomberg Markets, one of four Bloomberg magazines in the United States. The wire stories have also been picked up at various times by some 350 newspapers and magazines worldwide (including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times).
With so many platforms, Bloomberg stories are never really finished until the day is done; they can be updated or tweaked at any point. Perhaps most closely scrutinized are the "Top" news headlines. That's because "Top" is one of the most-watched screens -- the one customers stare at all day on their Bloombergs, the one with information that can move markets.
"'Fully priced in' -- that's how bond traders speak, but nobody else talks that way."
And so, every day at approximately 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, Winkler and the managing editors from among Bloomberg's largest bureaus -- New York City; San Francisco; Chicago; Princeton, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; London; and Tokyo -- link up via videoconferencing, take a seat at a Bloomberg machine, and scrutinize all the "Top" stories -- usually about 20 -- the editors posted earlier that morning. Because it's real-time journalism, they're aware that while they're debating how to improve each paragraph, thousands of users are already reading the earlier versions. (Stories are modified an average of three times within a 12-hour period.) The editors rarely look at one another; their eyes are fixed on the text.
"Where do you have anything in this story," asks Winkler, "that justifies this description 'last-ditch effort,' whatever that means?" Winkler, who is wearing his trademark bow tie, is bleary-eyed behind his round, wire-rimmed reading glasses. He arrived on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles a few hours ago and is scanning a story on Argentina's new economic minister, Domingo Cavallo, whom many view as the country's last hope to restore economic stability.
John McCorry, who is overseeing the story out of Princeton, Bloomberg's hub for news about business companies, agrees: "That needs to be changed....I don't think the phrase 'last-ditch effort' makes a lot of sense."
Winkler: "Well, it would [make sense] if you had somebody saying 'We've done this, this, and this, and [Cavallo's] the indispensable man, and if we lose with him, we've lost.' That would justify that expression."
McCorry: "We don't have the government or anybody saying that....I don't think that phrase should be there."
"Well, let's get it out of there ASAP," says Winkler.
It's a snapshot of the Bloomberg orthodoxy: Don't assert something unless you can back it up with anecdotes or quotes. It's just one of the edicts every reporter and editor learns, the code that Winkler has spelled out in the 359 pages of The Bloomberg Way, the Torah of Bloomberg law: Don't use jargon; don't assume previous knowledge; don't say the stock grew "sharply," just give the figure; don't tell me the CEO is fat -- tell me his height and weight, and I'll decide for myself. "So it's no longer a question of judgment," Winkler explains to me. "It's a question of fact." Details make a story authoritative, he says, "and this happens to dovetail with the requirement of covering markets and money....Performance is conveyed through numbers. And we're always writing about performance -- is this company doing better or worse; is this market or stock doing better or worse? And you don't want to say 'better' or 'worse'; you don't want it to be your surmise." Also: Don't use anonymous sources without running them by Winkler. Using words ending in -ly will get you tarred and feathered. "You can't write -- or you shouldn't write -- and don't let me catch you writing -- with adjectives and adverbs," he says. "They're imprecise. And successful journalism is about precision in language."
But The Bloomberg Way is much more than a spiral-bound rule book. It's a way of life, of working, of management, of interaction, a nose-to-the-grindstone culture established by Michael Bloomberg and articulated in his 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg (with, the title page reads, "invaluable help from Matthew Winkler"): "The rewards almost always go to those who outwork the others," Bloomberg writes. "You've got to come in early, stay late, lunch at your desk, take projects home nights and weekends. The time you put in is the single most important controllable variable determining your future."
Although he has pioneered a technology that makes his subscribers and reporters smarter about any company they're investing in or researching, Bloomberg does not believe that the technology is the key to the company's success. "Our people...are the company," he writes. "You can replace our technology, data, reputation and clients, but you cannot duplicate the group we've put together and the culture they've developed. We are a team." Or, depending on whom you ask, a club. Or a boot camp. Or even a cult. Current employees say that life at Bloomberg is energizing, but many alumni say it's debilitating. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth about an organization that during the high-profile mayoral contest will inevitably be dissected for clues about how Michael Bloomberg leads.
Stepping out of an elevator at Bloomberg News's Park Avenue offices (which occupy 22 floors of two conjoined skyscrapers) is like stumbling onto a hyperbuoyant movie set. Behind the wide stretch of a reception desk on the 15th floor, everyone is smiling and encouraging me to help myself at the complimentary snack bar, a brightly lit minimart stocked with Milano cookies, granola bars, and bowls of fruit.
I resist the sweets and settle into one of the waiting area's two leather sofas. There is a tall arrangement of flowers on the coffee table; to my left, Technicolor-bright tropical fish dart around in an enormous tank that's built into the wall. The fish and flowers are conspicuous touches of nature in the otherwise high-tech gestalt of Bloomberg News, which is outfitted with glowing monitors, broadcast microphones, sound instruments, TV lights, electronic ticker tape, and dozens of clocks set to different time zones. As I watch people dash from newsroom to sound booth, their identical security tags flapping, I can't help thinking this is all a show put on especially for me, as if, when I arrived downstairs, someone had yelled, "Places, everyone!" and then, just before I stepped off the elevator, "Action!"
There's some truth to it: "The waiting area for guests," writes Bloomberg in his book, "shows off our people and the normal excitement at our company....Lots of warm wood gives a feeling of luxury and comfort....Big saltwater fish tanks provide light, white noise, and some relaxation."
Bloomberg tells me he sends a message to his staff -- You are valued -- through the attention and expense he has lavished on their surroundings. "If you go around the world, every place you go, you will find that the Bloomberg offices are in the best neighborhoods, [with] the best food, [and] the security is as good as we can make it. I will do anything for the employees of this company, and yes, that's good business."
Good business meant $2.5 billion in revenue last year, according to Bloomberg's estimates, and $1.8 billion the year before. (Bloomberg LP is a privately held company, of which Bloomberg owns 72 percent.) Last year, Bloomberg News reported a 25 percent growth in terminal sales. Bloomberg Television loses money, but Bloomberg says a serious media enterprise needs television. "Media companies have to have all ways of delivering their content....Some will be profitable and some won't."
But beyond the financial strength of the company, Michael Bloomberg's employees talk a lot about his generosity: good salaries, fat bonuses (which are tied to the annual sales of terminals), fast promotions, free food, first-class business travel, and state-of-the-art technology.
"All those things are very attached to Mike," says Brian Rooney, a ten-year veteran who oversees the "Top" stories every day. "You say, 'Oh, man, that's the kind of things Mike does for his people.'" Bloomberg is largely uninvolved in the day-to-day news operation, but his aura of beneficence is felt nevertheless.
"It's beautiful," says Mitch Lebe, an announcer for Bloomberg Radio. "It's so nice after all the years to be somewhere that appreciates you."
The appreciation, many say, is also demonstrated by extravagant company parties: Bloomberg says last year's Christmas gala at New York City's Museum of Natural History cost him around $2.5 million, and the annual family picnic has featured circus animals for the kids. Last December, Bloomberg arranged a
London blowout for 2,000 of his overseas staff and their dates. The New York Post reported, "The theme was 'The Seven Deadly Sins,' and guests were encouraged to commit them all. There were massage parlors, strippers, oversized beds...."
But the Bloomberg workday isn't what you'd call a party. A real-time news wire requires 24-hour attention, and both Bloomberg and Winkler demand 24-hour dedication. And to spend some time in the Bloomberg Newsroom is to wonder if there's some secret Bloomberg brew in the company refrigerator that's transformed the typical mopey, cynical newsperson into a rabid cheerleader. Not only is everyone dashing about, they're hopping out of their seats, eager to tell you how much they love the place. Well, maybe not everyone. Plenty of people have complained that signing on with Bloomberg shouldn't mean signing over your life. They liken Bloomberg News to a cult and its disciples to drones, a comparison that makes the most devoted Bloombergers bristle.
"Let me tell you about what you say is 'the cult,'" says Kevin Reynolds, who heads the assignment desk from Princeton and has been with the company for almost nine years. "A couple years ago, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. She was given six months to live." Reynolds wrote a message to Michael Bloomberg, who contacted a specialist at Johns Hopkins University's hospital. Before graduating from Harvard Business School, Bloomberg attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and has since chaired its board of trustees and donated over $100 million to the school. "Within 45 minutes, I've got the office of the head of neurosurgery on the phone with me," Reynolds continues, "saying, 'We'd love to take your case; get her in an ambulance, and get her down here.'" He pauses reverentially. "That's Mike Bloomberg."
What's also Mike Bloomberg, says Reynolds, is how he welcomes initiative, no matter whom it comes from. "Be careful if you have a good idea," says Reynolds, his voice dipping for emphasis. We're sitting in his cubicle on the busy Princeton newsroom floor, and Reynolds, with his long, blond hair and baggy clothing, looks more like a retired surfer than a fierce Bloomberg apostle. "If you open your mouth, it can become a reality. Like that." He snaps. "Quick learners can go far," he whispers. "Far. There are people who joined the same time as I did, who came in as reporters....One is now the head of the commodities worldwide and also a Midwest bureau chief. Someone who came in covering semiconductors is now Singapore bureau chief!"
He leans back, triumphant. "This place rocks," he concludes.
"How so?" I ask him.
"Did you ever watch Star Trek?" asks Reynolds, who gets to work at 5 every morning. "Okay. It's Mr. Spock," he says, pointing to his Bloomberg machine. "There's so much information, so much value in here. If you [were a reporter covering crime and] had the FBI's crime files online at your disposal, the Justice Department's files, and the local cops' information, right at your fingertips, wouldn't you have an advantage over your competitors? Big time....As a reporter here, you have knowledge going into the interview that your competitors don't even have at the end. You're smarter, you're faster, you've got Mike Bloomberg."
There are no private rooms at Bloomberg; the boss himself sits at a desk that floats in the open, inches away from fellow employees. Bloomberg preaches the virtues of an open work space resembling Salomon's trading floor; he says it teaches people to focus and to use one another as resources.
If Bloomberg is the munificent grandfather bestowing his generosity from afar, Matthew Winkler is the strict father. In the newsroom, his word is inviolable. Both his supporters and his detractors describe him as "intense," "relentless," and "earnest."
Winkler makes weekly visits to Bloomberg's various bureaus -- Frankfurt, São Paolo, San Francisco -- often returning on overnight flights to maximize the next workday. When he's in New York, he's in the office at 6 a.m., often staying until 5 or 6 in the evening, when he commutes home to Maplewood, N.J., to his wife and three children.
Winkler, who was raised in Rockland County, N.Y., graduated from Kenyon College in 1977 with a degree in history, and within three years, he had joined the staff of The Wall Street Journal. In 1988, Winkler started investigating a strange machine he kept hearing about. "In the mid-1980s, when I was in London as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal," Winkler recalls, "I used to talk regularly to a trader at Merrill Lynch who was invariably precise in his answers about the relative values in securities every day -- which was cheap, which was expensive. It was frustrating to me that anyone could be that smart. One day I finally asked him, 'How do you know all this stuff?' He said, 'Oh, that's easy. I've got this box on my desk; it's called a Bloomberg.'"
Winkler remembers the day he and his cowriter interviewed Bloomberg. "We walked into his office and he says, 'I have the greatest company in the world: Everyone here is brilliant; if I asked them all to jump out the window, they'd do it in a second.' And we looked at him, two truly grizzled veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, and said, 'Yeah, right, and the dish ran away with the spoon.' And he stormed out...and he came back three or four minutes later and he had a stack of paper -- from one of those old-fashioned computer printers -- threw it in my lap and said, 'Here. You didn't get this from me. It's every customer we have by name, telephone number, address. Call them for yourself.' And then he left. So we started making calls."
Winkler cowrote a front-page story, which ran on September 22, 1988, that said, Winkler paraphrases, "Bloomberg is doing to financial information what American Airlines and United Airlines did with their automated reservation system: getting everybody hooked on his data."
A year later, Bloomberg called Winkler and asked what, hypothetically, would be required to start a news operation. Winkler answered with a hypothetical of his own: "Your reporter has just written a story," Winkler said to Bloomberg, "that says the chairman of your biggest customer has just disappeared from the firm and $10 million from the corporate till is missing. Turns out he's with his secretary in Rio; they're having a wonderful time water-skiing, and the story is true. The president of the firm calls you and says, 'You take that story off your terminal right now or all 2,000 terminals will disappear off my trading floor tomorrow.' And I said, 'What do you do?' And he didn't pause; he didn't bat an eye; he looked at me and he said, with a smile, 'My lawyers will love you.' And I said, 'Well, that's the right answer.'"
That code of ethics translates to the newsroom culture, where, balancing out the free food and holiday parties, there are unforgiving scrutiny (every story is compared to the competition), unbendable policies (every writer, no matter how experienced or acclaimed, must pass a writing test and a general financial-knowledge exam before being hired), lack of personal space (reporters work at 60-inch slabs of desks with low -- or no -- dividers between them), constant deadline pressure (a story, once assigned, has to be turned around in as little as 15 minutes), and rare lunch breaks (several former employees tell me that "lunch is frowned upon," though Winkler denies that).
It is not a place for self-promoters: Bloomberg employees are expected to place the good of the company above their own ambitions; his company, says Bloomberg, is "not a place for building your own name. I don't want the other 7,000 people in this company to feel that any one person is more important than they."
Nor is the company ever completely escapable: Reporters are often woken in the dead of night to be told that they were beaten by The Wall Street Journal for a story and that they should start reporting a competitive one. "We get the call in the middle of the night," says Brian Rooney, "saying, 'Oh my God, they got it; we have to get it now.'" (Winkler says that a global news organization has to confirm a story as soon as it breaks; Bloomberg subscribers around the world don't sleep at the same time.)
For some, though, the demands of Bloomberg News have proved onerous, even outrageous. "They'd call you at 2 or 3 in the morning," says Shannon Stevens, who worked as a reporter at Bloomberg from 1994 to 1997. "It would make your hair stand up." She says that people were berated regularly for missing an angle or being trumped on a story. "No matter what happened, it was always your fault....Dow and the Journal always knew better than you did." Stevens might be dismissed as a peeved employee, but ten other former staffers -- all of whom say they left voluntarily -- tick off the same complaints about working at Bloomberg News: the obsession with Bloomberg's competitors; the relentless, public, and demeaning criticism; the frugal praise. "It was a cruel, vicious, and humiliating place to work," says Gary Miller, who is now deputy business editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Especially if you made a mistake, and I made my share." He adds that the lessons he learned at Bloomberg were invaluable -- "I learned more in my two years there than I had learned in my entire career elsewhere" -- but says it was at great cost to his sense of self-worth.
Others who would talk only on background now write and edit for some of the most respected news organizations in the country. "It's a meat grinder," says one. "Everyone who leaves there always feels like they have to go through analysis."
"There were a lot of smart people there, and I learned a lot, but all the screaming and the ranting and the expectations were absurd," says another, who worked at Bloomberg for five years. "It's journalism with all the fun taken out."
"It's a cultlike place," says a three-year veteran. "When you mess up or you miss a story, they make you feel guilty." They describe Matthew Winkler as a "mad scientist" who has created a news factory where workers are "interchangeable."
"If the process is so demeaning and demoralizing, why are so many people still here?" Winkler asks, pointing to what he considers a low turnover rate of 13 percent last year. "There are some people who found this place too rigorous," he says. "It should be invigorating. It should be the sort of place where you feel you are pursuing excellence." He likens himself to the demanding running coach in Chariots of Fire. "I'm not a bully, and I don't pick on people....It's never personal."
Bloomberg himself is quick to defend Winkler. "I have never met anybody who had the honesty and attention to detail and the belief that at all costs, this organization has to give our customers the unvarnished truth....The quality of our journalism is the best and Winkler is the reason....Make no mistake about it: He is a very hard-charging stickler for quality....Does it make it difficult to work for him? Of course."
And many of his staff are willing, even eager, to abide by Winkler's standards. "The best thing about this place," says Brian Rooney, "[is that] virtually anyone who gets anywhere within Bloomberg gets there because they really care about the subject. It sounds naive, but that is a beautiful thing....Through my time here, we've had Orange County [financial crisis], which was a beautiful story, the Asian currency story...Long-Term Capital's blowup was great, Russia's default...." But Rooney also doesn't deny that The Bloomberg Way is not for everyone. "The idea that you can never get it right is pretty much true, in the sense that literally every day we flagellate ourselves over something that we could have done better....It is a place that focuses far more on the pitches that we miss than the ones that we hit, with the idea that we learn a lot more from the failures than our successes."
I'm not a fan of this word, tight," says Winkler. In today's "Top" meeting, there's a story about California's power crisis. "Can't you just say 'an energy shortage' in the lead? Why do we have to say, 'Power supplies remain tight,' whatever that means?"
"Well, I don't think 'energy shortage' does it -- " begins John McCorry, from Princeton.
Winkler cuts him off: "Well, figure out some way to say it specifically."
Brian Rooney makes a suggestion: "Maybe 'California's power reserves'?"
"Yeah, that's what it is." McCorry sounds relieved.
But Winkler is impatient: "People didn't have enough power!" His voice is rising. "Isn't that it? People didn't have enough power to go around; to me, that's a shortage!...I'm thinking, John, about people in Singapore and Frankfurt. They know what a shortage is, okay?"
McCorry starts to reply: "No, I agree, I'm just saying that -- "
"there is a shortage!" Winkler bellows. "that's indisputable! there's not enough power to go around, so that's why there are blackouts!"
He drops back in his chair. No one around him speaks. The meeting goes on.
After the "Top" meeting, Winkler is sitting in the small, glassed-in conference room near his desk, which is dominated by a two- by three-foot Bloomberg screen. I tell him that he seemed frustrated in the meeting. He says, "I was. I didn't think the stories were as well written as they should have been. They were pretty ragged. They'll get cleaned up between now and 3 o'clock." Winkler climbs the spiral staircase to get a drink from the snack station. "On a good day, 'Top' looks great at 4 o'clock," he explains. "That's tomorrow's news today." He grabs a seltzer and wanders over to Bloomberg's desk.
"Winkler!" Bloomberg calls out, peering over his bifocals. He's dressed in his usual crisp tie and blue suit. "Your hair is all messed up; you must have been traveling."
"I was in L.A. last night."
They start chatting about some keyboard function that Winkler wants to improve, then move on to other subjects. "I'm trying to think if there's anything else," Winkler muses.
"We're not being sued by anybody, are we?" Bloomberg asks.
The two men have an easy rapport -- both subscribe to Bloomberg's ideology of how a great business should be run, maxims they immortalized in Bloomberg's book: Never let someone outwork you; never get complacent; reward those who work hardest; reject those who leave the fold. "God forbid one of our people go to work for a competitor," writes Bloomberg. "Then we all heartily and cordially really do hope they fail. In their new job, they have an avowed purpose to hurt their old coworkers. They've become bad people. Period. We have a loyalty to us. Leave, and you're them."
"It sounds rough; it sounds unreasonable," Winkler acknowledges. "We see the business that we're in perhaps in a binary way: You're either with us or you're not. You're either in the boat pulling the oar or you're not. And if you're not pulling the oar with us, our loyalty is not to you; it's to everyone in the boat." (Staff are, however, allowed to reapply later if they left the company to work in public service. "Self-serving, if I may point out," Bloomberg says with a smile.)
But although Bloomberg and Winkler may preach the same gospel, on a personal level they seem like the odd couple. While Winkler passes his nights reading books (Robert Massie's Dreadnought, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War) recommended by his teenage sons and 10-year-old daughter, Bloomberg, who is divorced, is the dapper bachelor-about-Manhattan, hosting fund-raising dinners at his Upper East Side town house and attending galas for the myriad charities he supports; he donates tens of millions of dollars annually to everything from The Jewish Museum to Citymeals-on-Wheels. He appears regularly in the New York City gossip columns, which detail his latest dinner with Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, Senator John McCain. Last summer, the New York Post ran an article headlined "Bloomberg Acts His Age -- Mogul Into Cosmopolitan Women, Not Cosmo Girls."
In fact, Bloomberg seems to have charmed not only many of his employees, but members of the business and media elite, who are not given to fawning. Some of them are giddy at the prospect of Mayor Bloomberg. A recent New York magazine article quoted everyone from World Bank president James Wolfensohn ("'If he runs, I couldn't give my support to anyone else'") to Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters ("'I have always teased that if I could meet Michael ten years older, this would be the man I'd run off with'"); each successive person was more besotted with Bloomberg than the last.
Bloomberg was raised in blue-collar Medford, Mass. (his mother still lives in the house he grew up in), but today, in Manhattan's overlapping financial and social circles, he's a walking brand name with a recognizable logo, known for reeling off unfiltered zingers. "He does tell dirty jokes," says Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson, who's an avowed Bloomberg groupie. "I'm trying to think of one he told -- it was one of those priest-rabbi-minister jokes." She tries to reconstruct it, then gives up. "They're not very funny, but they're not very offensive, either." She laughs. Carlson says it doesn't always follow that rich men are decent human beings. "I'm not easy on these billionaires....My nose is very good for people who just do things when the camera's on. Mike's not like that. He's good-hearted." Certainly not everyone agrees with her: Bloomberg has been sued for sexual harassment by three different former employees (he settled one case in 1997, one was dismissed, and the third was withdrawn). Still, "I think he's great to women," says Carlson. "I've never seen him behave in a sexist way."
Carlson and her colleagues Al Hunt and Robert Novak on CNN's famously acerbic The Capital Gang spent part of one episode last March discussing Bloomberg's mayoral prospects and out-extolling each other in the process. "He created -- he just brilliantly created a remarkably successful empire," said Wall Street Journal columnist Hunt. "Unlike most people who get in the news business later in life, he has injected great values and total integrity in Bloomberg News. I think that's very impressive."
"The only drawback to Bloomberg running for mayor," Carlson chimed in, "is that the city will lose a great philanthropist....He's one of the more generous billionaires in American society." The fact is that Bloomberg has in the past helped both Carlson and Hunt with personal problems, and a cynic might suggest that Bloomberg uses his good deeds to buy loyalty. When I ask Bloomberg about that, he leans back and shakes his head, amazed. "Can I ask you a question?" Bloomberg asks. "Did it ever remotely occur to you -- " He leaves me to finish the sentence.
"That you might just be a good guy?"
"Yeah!" He smiles. "Leave that dangling possibility out there; maybe they're right!"
Matthew Winkler, on the other hand, isn't a bold-faced name in the gossip columns. He doesn't have Michael Bloomberg's flash or flair, and he doesn't pretend to. I ask him if it's ever difficult to be the man behind The Man: "Pride goeth before the fall," Winkler says. "I really believe that. I don't do this for glory for me. I do it for the thrill of having made something and making it better." He jumps up to grab The New York Times's Business section and points to how many times the Bloomberg byline appears at the beginning of an article. "When I look at a newspaper and I see that" -- he points at the Bloomberg attribution -- "I feel like I made it. I feel terrific."
In terms of his personal relationship with Bloomberg, he describes a "familiarity and closeness," but pauses when I ask whether they're friends. "Well, that's an interesting question," he says after a short silence. "I've always regarded him as my boss, and I've never thought of him in any other way." Even after a decade, he talks about his employer in formal terms. "He is the publisher, and he can do with me as he sees fit if I get the facts wrong and I pervert what journalism is -- if I make a mistake -- and he should."
But as much as Bloomberg values Winkler, he also says that Winkler's dispensable. That, too, is part of The Bloomberg Way. "One of [Winkler's] greatest strengths is that he has shown that he's built a handful of people who could replace him," says Bloomberg, "and I hope every single one of them would be better than him." Every Bloomberg manager must designate a successor; it's known as Bloomberg's "What if you got hit by a bus?" theory. And who is Michael Bloomberg's heir apparent? "I know and nobody else does," says Bloomberg, who has already relinquished the title of chairman. "I will, between now and the end of the year, turn over more and more of the company, and I certainly will have a chief operating officer running the company. Whether I run for mayor or not and whether I win or not. Now, if I were to become mayor, obviously there's no legal reason why I can't [continue to run the company], although Brill's will try to make one up.
"It is true that they will not ask my successor to go and speak to Charlie Rose in front of a panel. It is true that my successor won't be as good with a bunch of customers who are going out speaking at a conference and that sort of thing. You know, I'm colorful; I'm experienced at it; I am enough of an extrovert....And it's probably true that whoever takes over this company won't have the time and won't be as good at it. So we'll miss that. But keep in mind, our competitors don't have a Colonel Sanders. And Colonel Sanders, if you look -- this is going to come as a surprise as you read this -- but he doesn't cook every piece of chicken 24 hours a day at any one Kentucky Fried place. In fact, he doesn't do it at any of them, and in fact, he's been dead for three years."
I ask Bloomberg if he's aware that Winkler would prefer he skip the mayoral race.
"He has expressed that view," Bloomberg says with a smile. "He has a right to his opinion. We don't shoot people because they have opinions."
Winkler wants Bloomberg around because he thinks the company needs its draftsman, but he's not concerned about his team's ability to cover Bloomberg's candidacy without fear or favor. An April 13 New York Times article reported that Bloomberg News had assigned a reporter to cover the 2001 mayoral race and discussed the challenge Bloomberg News faces in covering its founder objectively. "It's not difficult for us to summarize or report the critical or less flattering," Winkler says. "What we have to steer clear of is doing anything that is self-serving to him."
If Bloomberg News did demonstrate any favorable bias, its customers would be quick to point it out. Unlike virtually every other major news service, Bloomberg News encourages -- even requires -- its reporters and editors to engage with their customers. The reporter's name is listed at the bottom of every published story.
When a correction is warranted, Bloomberg News runs one prominently. And Bloomberg doesn't deny he gets a pit in his stomach when a friend calls to protest. "Oh, absolutely!" he says. "Or forget a friend -- what about our biggest customers when they call up screaming? And the answer is 'I'm the publisher and not the editor; if you have a question, here's Matt Winkler's phone number. I suggest you give him a call.'" Just as Winkler predicted at the start of the enterprise, plenty of customers have called and threatened to cancel their Bloombergs. None, he says, ever has.
"I talk to customers almost every day," says editor John McCorry. And if we think [they have a story] worth pursuing, we'll pursue it."
Bloomberg takes it a step further, saying that customer responsiveness translates to the bottom line. "If nobody wants to read, listen, or see what you [the journalist] produce, they're not going to pay for it, and there's nobody that's going to pay your salary."
Along those lines, reporters also get feedback from the Bloomberg sales staff about what customers are telling them about the stories' speed, depth, and clarity. Bloomberg's philosophy on this subject would make some old-school journalists uneasy because it appears to flout the sacrosanct journalistic separation of church and state. "Most news organizations never connect reporters and commerce," he writes in Bloomberg by Bloomberg. "At Bloomberg, they're as close to seamless as it can get....Any journalist preaching that capitalism doesn't affect him or her won't (and shouldn't) survive in this day and age....In today's world, the economics of publishing won't permit paying journalists to write what no one wants to read. I'm proud of the balance we maintain between the dollar sign and the written word."
As proof of Bloomberg News's standards, staffers point to their coverage of selective disclosure -- the antiquated and flawed system of companies providing information to a select group of analysts and not to the shareholders at large. "Nobody pushed harder on corporate America to release the information to everyone that they were leaking to the analysts," says Floyd Norris, the chief financial correspondent for The New York Times, who has been friendly with Winkler since their early days as reporters for Dow Jones (Winkler for the Journal, Norris for Barron's). "The FCC has published a new rule -- Regulation 'FD' for 'Fair Disclosure,'" Norris continues. "Companies now have to disclose it broadly. Conference calls are now open to anybody -- not necessarily to take part in the call but to listen to it....Matt pushed on this for years."
Norris says that those who discount what Winkler has built as a mere news wire are mistaken. "It's clearly more than that," says Norris. "[Bloomberg News has] hired some extremely respected people as journalists." But Dick Tofel, a spokesman for Dow Jones, is silent when I ask whether Bloomberg approaches the prestige of the Journal. "If somebody has convinced you that it is comparable to be a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and at Bloomberg," he says patronizingly, "then you should publish that." Tofel says that the more apt comparison is to Dow Jones's wire service (Dow Jones's terminal, Telerate, which competed directly with Bloomberg, went out of business in 1997) and that Dow Jones posts stories faster than Bloomberg. "We keep track," he says. "One of the things that one wants to do in the news-wire biz is to beat the other two. You bet. It's not the only thing that matters, but it matters."
Winkler says he keeps track, too: "We do autopsies," he says, referring to daily analyses of who broke what story first, "and they show just the opposite." Obviously, any rivalry comes down to anecdotal and unreliable bickering. And this particular squabble is complicated by the fact that Bloomberg and Dow Jones are actually partners in a sense: Bloomberg offers Dow Jones's wire on its terminal for an extra fee.
But Tofel says what's indisputable is that people who want Dow Jones's news service have to pay for it, while those who want Bloomberg's news get it as part of the whole Bloomberg package; therefore, there's no quantifiable way to measure it as a stand-alone news product. "Bloomberg News is not a business," says Tofel. "They don't sell their news....It may be a selling point on the terminal, but you don't pay for it and you don't have a choice as to whether to get it."
You do, however, have to choose to subscribe to Dow Jones, and Tofel says the company's revenue last year -- $232 million -- is proof that Dow Jones has a news product that people think is worth paying for. "The market proof that ours is superior is that people pay for it," he says.
"That's about as stupid an argument as I've ever heard," says Bloomberg. "When you buy an auto...you're not paying for the steering wheel 'cause it's not listed on the bill of sale? Come on. I think the users of our product use a lot of different things. A very large percentage of them use the News....I think without the News on our product, we never would have grown remotely the way we did."
But his business model intentionally doesn't parse which Bloomberg feature makes how much revenue. "You're asking me, 'Does the News make money?'" asks Bloomberg. "There's no answer to the question. Because we don't sell it separately....We don't bill anything separately, so I don't know how to ascribe value....Every part of this company is one leg of a three-legged stool....Cut off any one of those three legs and the stool falls over."
It's 4:30 p.m. at Bloomberg News, and the staff are beginning to wind down. Winkler is sitting in a conference room, with a seltzer in one hand and his chin cupped in the other, interviewing a British candidate for Bloomberg Frankfurt via speakerphone. For the young, polite man on the other end of the line to have gotten this far in the process means he has passed the Bloomberg written test and been approved by a couple of editors below Winkler. Winkler will eventually meet him in person in Europe, just as he has met every single Bloomberg News employee.
"You got a degree in English, right?" Winkler says into the phone. "Literature?"
"Okay. Do you remember the beginning of The Great Gatsby?"
There's no answer.
"Do you remember the narrator of The Great Gatsby?" Winkler says, loudly.
"Jay Gatsby's friend."
"Do you remember what his name is?" Winkler asks.
"I'm sorry, one more time?"
"Nick Carraway!" Winkler shouts. "Do you remember what he did for a living?"
There is a pause. "No," says the candidate, his voice small.
"Sells bonds," Winkler says.
"Well," Winkler continues, "What [F. Scott] Fitzgerald did for the bond market, we would like to do for the bond market, okay? And Fitzgerald is read by a lot of very smart, intelligent people, who I daresay are Bloomberg users. Since when is the bond market a subject that should be dry as dust?"
The candidate tries to answer, but Winkler shouts over him, "do you think smart people enjoy wooden prose?"
"No," says the interviewee. He sounds miserable.
Winkler pushes on. "Do you think smart people enjoy stories that are just numbers -- no plots, no quotes, no anecdotes?"
"I hope not."
"Okay," says Winkler. "The people who lease the Bloomberg are probably the most educated and affluent group of people in the world. They went to the best colleges and universities in the world -- whether we're talking about Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford or the Sorbonne. They've read Flaubert; they read Gabriel García Márquez on the beach. Why should they be denied something well written simply because it's about the bond market? They're paying a lot of money for us."
The interviewee begins to stammer out a reply. "They...right. They shouldn't...any reporter should aspire to -- "
But the hazing is over. Winkler cuts him off. "Okay. You're sure you want to do this?"
"No doubts?" Winkler smiles.
"Okay," concludes Winkler. "Consider it done."
"Okay," says the interviewee, sounding dazed. "Thank you."
"I'll see you in Frankfurt," says Winkler. He hangs up the phone.
I tell Winkler to call that poor guy back: He doesn't know he's been hired. "Yes, he does," Winkler says with a smile.
"Why did you put him through all that?" I ask.
"I just want him to know what he's getting into."
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