Michael Bloomberg

Outgoing Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg speaks at the opening ceremony of Four World Trade Center, the first tower to open at the original site of the World Trade Center. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images / November 13, 2013)

Bloomberg LP finds itself in a struggle to define the proper role of the news division in the financial colossus, which makes most of its money by renting terminals to portfolio managers, traders and analysts that give them access to real-time market data, analytics, world news and a trading platform.

First came reports — denied by Bloomberg — that the news division spiked a story on the Chinese elite — a follow-up to an earlier, award-winning investigation that had angered the Communist Party leaders — because the new story would further provoke the government. One of the story's reporters, Mike Forsythe, subsequently left the company.

Then a front-page article in the New York Times put all this into context: Bloomberg has barely penetrated the China market, and the government has signaled in the most unsubtle way that Bloomberg won't be expanding its terminal business there, or even getting journalists from the news division into the country, if it continues to publish hard-hitting articles. Framing this internal struggle is the reality that the news division loses a reported $100 million a year, while the terminal business, already a money machine, might be making much more than that in China alone, if only the news division would play ball.

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The key to how this plays out is Michael Bloomberg himself, the majority owner of the company he founded and the soon-to-be-former mayor of New York. The issue should be a no-brainer, even if doing the right thing makes a tiny dent in his mammoth net worth. Does he want his legacy to be the emasculation of one of the few remaining journalistic enterprises with a global reach just so he can add a few billion more to the tens of billions of dollars he already has? Or does he want to be remembered as someone who built from scratch a news operation that provided a vital service to democracy and markets, and who stood by the news division's integrity when it was threatened?

The issue that appears to be facing Bloomberg the company is a variant of a struggle that every news organization has faced since the dawn of journalism. Most of the time, it's the business side putting pressure on editors to soften coverage of big advertisers — and from what I've seen over 40 years, the editorial side folds more often than readers realize. It's been ever thus, but these days it's more thus than ever.

Very few journalistic enterprises are profitable. As print circulation drops and advertising options proliferate online, the competition for ad dollars becomes a life-or-death struggle. It's all too easy to kill or alter a story an advertiser doesn't like, while camouflaging the real reason — it's "shrill," or "unbalanced," "badly sourced," "not quite ready," etc. It's even easier not to assign the story at all.

In Bloomberg's case, the terminal side's frustrations are obvious. It wants to grow the business and doesn't want the news division to make that job more difficult, probably not just in China but everywhere Bloomberg News might be investigating a multinational corporation or reporting something that angers a big customer.

A Bloomberg terminal user, however, might ask: What good is Bloomberg News if I know it has self-censored the stuff I most need to know? And in this era of dis-intermediation, where trading platforms proliferate, what good is the terminal without news, both real-time and investigative?

New Yorkers will remember Bloomberg as a good mayor, and the financial community will remember (but not particularly revere) Bloomberg for the convenience of the terminal. The broader public may well remember the millions he has donated to combat the gun lobby and to address climate change, both crucial issues. But if Bloomberg wants to make his mark on history, Bloomberg News is probably his best bet, particularly if he can maintain its integrity in an era in which storied newspapers, magazines and television news shows are either disappearing or being taken over by narrow ideological interests.

In the digital era, quality journalism seems to require Medicis — deep-pocketed owners who realize that greatness requires something more than an obsession with the bottom line. Integrity has always come with a price. In this case, the price seems to be the $100 million a year that the Bloomberg News division loses — too much for me and maybe you but a mere bagatelle for someone with Michael Bloomberg's dough, which Forbes estimated at $31 billion as of September (up $6 billion for the year). If he so chose, Bloomberg could split off the news division, subsidize it and let those renting the terminals decide whether they want the news feed.

Would the Chinese follow through on their threat to ban Bloomberg journalists if the news division did not back down? Possibly. But it would severely undermine China's ambition to present itself as an alternative to Western dominance in global markets. And if the Chinese government didn't back down, Bloomberg could still cover the Chinese economy under Cold War conditions, and with the advantage that other news organizations still based in the country would be under suspicion of having softened their coverage to maintain access.

It's easy to coach from the sidelines. It's not my $100 million a year at stake. Bloomberg, however, has chosen to be a public figure, available for public scrutiny.

This struggle offers us a peek into his answer to a question that should haunt every billionaire: Do you own your money or does your money own you?

Eugene Linden reports on the environment, nature and finance.