Michael Bloomberg has last laugh as key staffer leaves

Financial information company sees rising levels of tension as employees describe it as ‘Game of Thrones’

Michael Bloomberg , former New York Mayor and founder of media company Bloomberg, is clashing with key staff.

Michael Bloomberg , former New York Mayor and founder of media company Bloomberg, is clashing with key staff.

 

This year, after Michael Bloomberg reasserted control over the company he founded and began to scrutinise its online operations, he suggested in a meeting that perhaps Bloomberg – which makes the overwhelming majority of its money from desk terminals that provide financial data – did not need to have a website.

Joshua Topolsky, the founder of a prominent technology website who had been hired to oversee a glossy reintroduction of Bloomberg’s Web properties, responded sarcastically, making fun of the suggestion, according to sources.

Mr Bloomberg, who often challenges subordinates with provocative questions, has grown accustomed to deference, the sources said. He was furious, and his relationship with Topolsky subsequently deteriorated to the point that both decided it was better if Topolsky left.

In a statement, Topolsky said that one of the most interesting and exciting facets of his time at the company was Michael Bloomberg’s engagement, and that “he says what’s on his mind and you can have a frank conversation with him,” a rarity in the media industry.

Dismissal

The dismissal of Topolsky is a sharp manifestation of what nearly a dozen current and former Bloomberg staff members described as the chaotic environment that has existed at the company since Bloomberg returned in September. The staff members spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to jeopardise their jobs or violate their nondisclosure agreements.

The media company consists of different fiefs, encompassing television, radio, a consumer website, Businessweek magazine and a financial newswire, all built around a newsroom of about 2,400 journalists and funded by the lucrative terminal business, which serves subscribers who pay about $21,000 a year. Revenue from subscriptions equaled $9 billion in 2014, or 85 per cent of the company’s total revenue.

During Micahel Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor of New York, when he stepped away from the company, there was a delicate stalemate between a series of senior figures at the company, the sources said. But on his return, he dismissed or moved most of those figures, rekindling feuds among top management. “It really is a game of thrones,” said one former staff member.

Most notably, the sources said, whether wittingly or not, the moves pitted Justin B. Smith, the man hired in Micahel Bloomberg’s absence to build a sprawling consumer media company, against John Micklethwait, the former editor of The Economist who was hired as editor-in-chief upon Bloomberg’s return.

Both Micklethwait and Smith were told they were in charge. And both report directly to Bloomberg, who was forced to negotiate a tentative peace between them. Bloomberg, Smith and Micklethwait declined to comment.

A major issue, the people said, is that Bloomberg, as a media organisation, is struggling to determine exactly what it wants to be. Michael Bloomberg has a personal fortune of around $36 billion, and the company employs some of the most talented journalists available – it won its first Pulitzer Prize this year. On some days, the people said, he seems bullish about the media company. On others, he seems to see it as a threat to the terminal business, to be managed accordingly.

Retrenchment

What seems clear to many, and what has been outlined in general terms, is a retrenchment, away from the sprawling media organisation that Smith was tasked with building, and toward one that focuses on subjects most important to the wealthy corporate readers that make up most of its customer base. Bloomberg and Micklethwait have signed off on a new editorial project, focused on providing nuanced and timely content, which is hiring several new writers, according to a source.

At a town hall meeting shortly after he arrived, Micklethwait laid out some of his editorial vision. He told staff members that he wanted to own the company’s “home territory.” That, he said, is “some version of business, finance, markets, technology - and then also what I think of as power.” Those topics, he said, are “of great interest to many of the people who buy terminals.”

Bloomberg has already turned a critical eye to the company’s money-losing television operation, where he surprised some of the staff who did not expect the founder and chief executive of a company to provide detailed input on seemingly minute matters.

He asked one presenter for more on-air arm movement. He asked another to gesticulate with a pen. And he has personally overseen the graphics shown on screen, which now resemble those seen on the terminal. Bloomberg is also keen to test new ideas, said a person knowledgeable about his management style, whether he agrees with them or not. He is willing to change his mind in the face of new evidence, the person said, and eager to understand the newer aspects of his business.

One of his concerns, these people said, was the television show, With All Due Respect, featuring political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The two, the authors of popular books about the last two presidential elections, were splashy and expensive hires made by Smith and Josh Tyrangiel, the editor of Businessweek.

Their show has been widely seen as awkward, and on one occasion Halperin was forced to apologise for an interview he conducted with Republican senator Ted Cruz, in which he questioned Cruz on his Cuban heritage and asked him to speak Spanish.

Departures

In the meantime, Bloomberg has shed some of its most experienced political reporters. This week, Dave Weigel, a popular political writer hired with great fanfare less than a year ago, departed for the Washington Post.

Those stumbles contributed, said one senior figure at the company, to Bloomberg’s questioning of Smith’s media strategy. (A spokesman for the company said Bloomberg “thinks very highly of Justin and they enjoy working together.”) That line of questioning was on display when he turned his attention to the website.

The site had been aggressively expanded, with an irreverent aesthetic, under Smith, Topolsky and Tyrangiel, and recently broke its traffic records.

But Bloomberg struggled to understand the thinking behind some of the moves. Unfamiliar with website development, he did not seem to understand that changes were subject to delays as programmers worked on them, said one source. When he met with employees who were resistant, he occasionally responded by asking whose name was above the door.

Some fear, according to one current staff member, that Bloomberg, as a media organisation, has “limitless resources but no real ambition from the top to be anything more than a service to terminal customers.”

- New York Times service