At Bloomberg, John Micklethwait channels an ancient ancestor

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Micklethwait at the party celebrating the Pulitzer win. (Bloomberg)
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John Micklethwait's Bloomberg L.P. career kicked off with a good old-fashioned turf war.

It was late February, and the 51-year-old British journalist and former Economist editor in chief had landed at Bloomberg with that same title.

His new job was an expanded version of the one held for 25 years by Matt Winkler, the perpetually bow-tied newsman who had run Bloomberg's flagship wire service with a certain draconian charm since its founding in 1990, and who was now moving on to become an editor emeritus within Michael Bloomberg's $9 billion-a-year financial news and information machine.

Bloomberg, not long after he resumed day-to-day leadership of the enterprise he'd founded in 1981, had announced in December that Micklethwait would "oversee editorial content across the company, including our news, newsletters, magazines, opinion, television, radio and digital properties," and that he would "work closely with Justin Smith, CEO of the Bloomberg Media Group, who will continue to report directly to me on all business and strategy matters across Bloomberg’s diverse media properties."

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A former Atlantic Media C.E.O., Smith had been given joint commercial and editorial oversight of Bloomberg's consumer-facing products when he was hired in 2013 by Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg L.P.'s chief executive at the time.

Now Micklethwait was on the scene, empowered by Bloomberg himself, and he believed he should have sole editorial custody of the media group.

Things got a little ugly. As a source close to the situation put it: "Micklethwait was aggressive about carving out his territory."

Maybe that was to be expected of a man descended from William the Conqueror. But it was also a product of larger forces.

For one thing, Bloomberg's return to the company, and his increasingly hands-on management style, has added a new ripple to power structures that were established in his absence. (The fresh news that chief digital content officer Josh Topolsky is leaving the company amid clashes with Bloomberg over web strategy is another sign.)

Above all, though, Micklethwait is on a mission: To consolidate authority and, for the first time, unite Bloomberg's various journalistic fiefdoms under a single chief.

To those well acquainted with the place, the change is nothing short of seismic.

"It's huge," said Chris Roush, a University of North Carolina business-journalism dean and former Bloomberg reporter who follows the company closely. "I don't think people have fully understood how important this is in terms of setting the tone of the newsroom, the tone of the content."

While that mission is very much a work in progress, the Micklethwait era is beginning to bear some fruit, such as his first major editorial initiative: a new franchise for commentary and analysis that is expected to be endowed with substantial resources and manpower.

Sources familiar with the project likened it to The Financial Times' Lex column, The Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street and Reuters' BreakingViews, and said it would be distinct from Bloomberg View, the company's wide-ranging opinion site, in its tight focus on business and finance news. It's being spearheaded by Bloomberg View publisher Tim O'Brien and editor David Shipley, who have been sniffing around the talent pools of outlets like the FT and the Journal.

More generally, though, Micklethwait has been preaching the gospel of collaboration—the "advantage of our collective wisdom," as he put it in one of his weekly staff notes; "the advantage of being one editorial team," as he wrote in another.

His arrival has coincided with a period of tumult at Bloomberg L.P., whose 73-year-old owner appears to be navigating two distinctly ambitious paths: To reap ever greater profits for the lucrative subscription service (The Terminal, in Bloomberg parlance) that makes the company more essential than air for stock market professionals the world over, and to enhance a suite of loss-leading media brands designed to make Bloomberg's cachet soar ever higher among the world's influencers and business elites.

Bloomberg and his deputies would argue that the latter proposition supports the former—more influence among power brokers means more access to power brokers means more juice for the journalism that is a central element of the astronomically-priced Terminal subscriptions that are sold to power brokers.

Yet for the couple-thousand reporters, writers and editors toiling away in the service of these goals, from New York to Frankfurt to Hong Kong and just about everywhere in between, consternation runs high.

Is the desire for widespread impact trumped by the need to deliver market-moving content for the 325,000 paying customers who keep Bloomberg's coffers full? How strong is Bloomberg's commitment to the type of long-winded enterprise journalism for which it won its first Pulitzer Prize this year? As Bloomberg evolves, what is the relationship between its mass-appeal print, broadcast and digital properties and a newswire that, for lay readers, might as well be written in Greek?

Micklethwait, an unfamiliar and arguably unorthodox face inside the 34-year-old company, finds himself at the center of these conundrums, which have been well documented in a recent spate of media reports portraying turmoil within the behemoth's muscular editorial arm.

As with any change agent, he has some skeptics to win over.

"We don't really have a dynamic person leading the charge. That's a big difference from Winkler," said one insider, speaking anonymously (like most of this article's sources) because employees caught talking out of school about the place they work could lose their jobs. "In a newsroom this big, you want to have a really dynamic leader."

A friendly-faced Oxford grad with floppy brown hair and self-effacing style, Micklethwait kickstarted his journalism career at The Economist in 1987 after a brief and unremarkable stint as a banker. By 2006, at the age of 43, he had climbed his way to the top of the masthead.

People who have worked with Micklethwait described him as eminently likable yet at times inscrutable; possessed of the strong personality required to hold a room, but also known to leave his audience scratching their heads.

As one source put it: "The thing with John is, he won't tell you what he wants. You have to go in and tell him what you think he should want, and he'll tell you whether he wants it."

He can network like the best of 'em, as evidenced by his membership in The Bilderberg Group, an uber-exclusive and highly secretive cabal of politicians, scholars, journalists and other VIPs. He was introduced to Bloomberg years ago by Kevin Sheekey, who worked under Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York, and who now serves as Bloomberg L.P.'s global head of communications, marketing and government affairs.

Bloomberg was enamored of Micklethwait's stewardship of The Economist, which is infused with the type of thought-leader DNA that Bloomberg is keen on spreading around within his own empire.

In other ways, the marriage seems mismatched. The Economist doesn't share Bloomberg's drive to make and break news. Moreover, the number of employees for which Micklethwait is responsible mushroomed overnight from around 130 to more than 2,500, leading some to wonder whether he's equipped to manage a staff of such magnitude while simultaneously fostering consistency and cooperation.

"He's a good choice as an outside force to be a changemaker," said Bill Emmott, who was Micklethwait's boss and predecessor at The Economist. "He will treat it as a challenge to overcome. He's made of tough stuff."

In the case of his tussle with Smith, Micklethwait appeared to be making a quick and decisive power play to solidify his full editorial control of Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Media, which includes Bloomberg Businessweek, Bloomberg TV, Bloomberg Politics, Bloomberg Pursuits, Bloomberg Radio and the one-stop digital portal Bloomberg Business, otherwise known as bloomberg.com.

During his first week on the job, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, Micklethwait proposed a management structure that would eliminate any editorial oversight Smith had previously held within the media group, including his oversight of Josh Tyrangiel, the editor in chief Bloomberg Businessweek and a fast-rising executive who'd worked closely with Smith on Bloomberg Media's digitally-focused expansion. Smith put up a fight, arguing that his authority was being undermined, while colleagues gossiped that he might get his lawyer involved. (He didn't.)

To add to the tension, sources said, Tyrangiel aligned himself with Micklethwait, damaging a relationship with Smith that was believed to already have begun to fray, including a February blowup that sources said was related to a Bloomberg TV series. Through their spokespeople, who disputed that there's any bad blood between them, Smith and Tyrangiel declined to comment. Micklethwait declined to be interviewed.

The episode culminated in a March 18 memo from Micklethwait in which he asserted that the "main editors across the terminal and media businesses will report to me." The compromise? "The editorial heads in our Media business will also have a business reporting line to Justin, where appropriate." (But to be sure: "I will now serve as the editorial lead in Justin’s Media management team.")

Other changes are afoot under the new regime as well.

Senior Bloomberg News editors have been reassigned to different parts of the business, like TV, radio and the web team, to encourage cohesion. The political operation is being carefully assessed for "redundancies," to use the internal jargon, in coverage being produced by the New York-based Bloomberg Politics web team and the more Terminal-oriented D.C. bureau, which have clashed. New products are being created for Terminal users, like a morning news briefing.

The Bloomberg Business homepage, meanwhile, which got a buzzy rollout in late January after repeated delays, is in the process of being tweaked to reflect Micklethwait and Bloomberg's more traditional web design tastes as opposed to the splashier, designey, photo-driven sensibilities of Smith, Tyrangiel and Topolsky. There's even talk of ditching the six-month-old "Bloomberg Business" branding and reverting to the simpler, arguably much clearer "Bloomberg," according to sources familiar with the discussions.

For a man who's spent much of his time thus far paying visits to Bloomberg's far flung bureaux around the globe, Micklethwait's weekly missives give staffers insight into his personality and management style.

They run the gamut from applauding specific stories ("I think we should celebrate our exceptional coverage of the Greek crisis. If it has brought out the worst of Europe, it has brought out the best of Bloomberg"), to drilling down on writing guidelines ("if you want to write a long story, you must draw the reader in, charm them"), to crowing about the awards being racked up by Bloomberg journalists (SABEWs, SPJs, Silurians etc).

There's also a fair amount of philosophizing about the strengths and purpose of the institution. In His March 31 installment, Micklethwait took a stab at clarifying just that.

"What should we concentrate on?," he asked. "It is worth starting by considering both our audience across all our media -- clever, time-pressured people with a lot of news outlets to choose from -- and the fact that we cannot cover everything."

The message, for anyone tempted to stray from Bloomberg's bread-and-butter coverage without a strong case for doing so, was loud and clear: Bloomberg—despite its size, its resources, its trophies, its clout among the powerful, its enviable position as the 1-percent of media organizations—can't be everywhere at once.

"Even with a force of 2,600 journalists," Micklethwait wrote, "we have to work out what we are good at."