The new Bloomberg Media
Last weekend, Bloomberg L.P. held its annual company picnic, a seven-figure soirée on Randall's Island with the types of attractions you'd expect from the company's billionaire benefactor: food tents cooking up everything from hamburgers to gourmet pizza to buffalo sausages and roast pig; rides including a ferris wheel, bumper cars, a zipline and a nausea-inducing contraption called The Orbiter; and a humongous video screen beaming in the latest World Cup matches live from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Justin Smith was unable to attend. Otherwise, the event might have been something of a rite of passage during his first year as a key lieutenant in Michael Bloomberg's financial news and information empire.
Late last July, Smith was named chief executive of Bloomberg L.P.'s media group, hired away from Atlantic Media, where he was credited with leading that company's transformation from antique print object to 21st-century digital success story. Nearly 12 months and about as many ears-full of strategy jargon later, Bloomberg employees are eager to see some of Smith's behind-the-scenes initiatives come to life.
They'll have to wait a few months longer: Capital has learned that media group employees were informed last week that the first in a planned suite of "digital-led multi-platform brands," a politics site being developed by high-profile political journalists and "Game Change" authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, both poached by Bloomberg in May with annual salaries reported to be north of $1 million, will debut on October 6—30 days before the 2014 Midterms—in tandem with a daily half-hour television show hosted by the duo that will air in Bloomberg TV's 5 p.m. timeslot as well as streaming online.
In a town hall meeting that lasted about two hours, Bloomberg Businessweek editor-in-chief Josh Tyrangiel, who's been working closely with Smith on the media-group strategy, described the show as "much closer to 'Pardon the Interruption' on ESPN than 'Meet the Press,'" according to a partial transcript provided by a source. "One of our biggest advantages in politics is we are not ideological, we are not a sewer." (Presumably the show will share the name of the site: Bloomberg Politics.)
The next launch in the sequence is expected to be Bloomberg Business, which will align with the content of Businessweek and businessweek.com. There had been talk of launching the business site ahead of Bloomberg Politics in September, but the internal target is now looking more like December, according to sources with knowledge of the roll-out.
Other digital launches in the hopper include Bloomberg Markets, a financial title, and the luxury-oriented Bloomberg Pursuits, which is being overseen by Vanity Fair veteran Chris Rovzar; they will align with the respective print magazines of the same names. A tech site is also being discussed, sources said.
Aside from Bloomberg Politics, there are as of yet no hard launch dates for any of the titles, and some insiders are getting a little antsy.
"It's still mostly chatter about strategy with no product being delivered," said one executive who was not authorized to speak on the record. "People want to see something on the table, basically."
Through a spokesperson, Smith declined to comment.
Bloomberg L.P.'s business model hinges on delivering lightning-speed financial headlines and stock market information to financial professionals in banking capitals around the globe via the company's trademark data terminals, which are hawked to firms at a cool $20,000 a pop, give or take.
With some 320,000 terminals worldwide, subscribers make up the lion's share of revenue, as well as a targeted audience for roughly 2,000 journalists who work for Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg Media Group—which currently includes magazines (Businessweek, Markets, Pursuits), websites (bloomberg.com, the opinion site Bloomberg View) and broadcast outlets (Bloomberg TV, Bloomberg Radio)—is essentially a value-add that reaches beyond the core financial demographic. However, the media group as a whole lacks the mainstream luster both of traditional competitors, like The Wall Street Journal, and buzzy digital startups, like Business Insider.
"The Bloomberg brand is huge in New York," Zazie Lucke, head of global advertiser marketing and Smith's first big hire last October, said during last week's media-group powwow, according to Capital's transcript. "But the Bloomberg brand in media is not that well known. I had worked in media for 15 years, and when I was considering coming on to Bloomberg, I didn't know a lot about it. ... I polled my colleagues, my friends in media, my clients, and I asked them, 'What do you know about the Bloomberg brand in media?' The answers were all over the place."
Smith's hire was seen as a totem of Bloomberg's desire for influence within the consumer media space, where its own consumer brands are subsidized (or cushioned, in the case of big money-losers like Businessweek and Bloomberg TV) by the company's lush terminal profits.
After officially coming on board last September, Smith rolled up his sleeves and began charting a strategy for Bloomberg Media Group. Part of it has to do with investing in existing assets while getting more aggressive with growth areas like web video. But at its core, the strategy involves "building out a portfolio of new digital assets that better align our content offerings to global business audience segments," as Smith wrote in a March memo published on the web platform Medium. "This realignment will help us go bolder and deeper, signaling to consumers outside of finance that Bloomberg has the media products for them, while providing advertisers with a more targeted way to reach their most important audiences."
Or, as Smith put it during the town hall: "The metaphor we've used is to own global business the way ESPN owns sports." He cited "the multiplatform power of a brand like ESPN, which really surrounds and in many ways suffocates the audience with all these different platforms and all these different vantage points."
Tyrangiel added that Bloomberg L.P. has historically shown a "benign malignance" toward the web, but attitudes are changing.
"We think that there's a huge opportunity between the Business Insiders of the world, which are colloquial and fun and often unreliable and occasionally slanderous and definitely picking our stuff off," he said, "and the Wall Street Journals of the world, which are accurate, reliable, based on access and frequently dull. There's a huge space for us to play in."
Ultimately, the reinvention of Bloomberg Media Group will be a series of tests—of the potential to innovate within a lumbering corporate bureaucracy; of the brand value tethered to the Bloomberg name and the extent to which advertising can help offset losses outside of the tried and true terminal business; and of the ease with which wonky financial fare can be adapted for a mass readership.
"The biggest challenge is going to be changing the atmosphere in the newsroom and getting people to think about a broader audience than investment bankers and traders," said Chris Roush, a U.N.C. Chapel Hill business-journalism professor and former Bloomberg News reporter. "What they're going to have to figure out is what the content is going to be for both those audiences."
In preparation for that challenge, and since the new brands will draw heavily on content from the main newsroom, as opposed to lots of new journalists hired from the outside, Bloomberg News has recruited Journal veteran and Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin as executive training editor, a role that will help streamline how news offerings are presented to the company's financial subscribers and, well, everyone else.
"Bill will help ensure that Bloomberg journalism in all its forms engages our audiences, from terminal to the Web and mobile," Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matt Winkler wrote in a memo last month.
Recent hires on the media group's business side, meanwhile, include ad executive Jacki Kelley, formerly of IPG Mediabrands, USA Today and Yahoo, as chief operating officer; and Paul Caine, a former Time Inc. executive, as chief revenue officer. Gabriel Snyder and Nathan Richardson were brought on as digital advisors in March.
Bloomberg himself has been a full-time presence back at the privately-held company, of which the former New York mayor is majority shareholder, since leaving office in January.
Roush, who chronicles the financial and business press on his website, Talking Biz News, said he was optimistic about the success of Bloomberg's consumer ramp-up for that very reason.
"Mike doesn't start something and then two years later, if it's not making money, pull the plug," he said. "I think it can be successful because Mike is in it for the long term and they don't have to appease investors."