Reporting from Washington
Washington is a city that understands bold gestures, and one media company has been making a lot of them lately. Bloomberg has scooped up a series of journalism’s big names, opened a second newsroom to accommodate a doubling of staff and launched a new opinion website, just this week, co-headed by former Clinton administration favorite Jamie Rubin.
The company’s boldest move, though, has been the launch of Bloomberg Government, or BGov.com, an aggressive new endeavor but one that’s largely hidden from public view because the website is surrounded by a high pay wall. The startup intends to thrive by doing what Washington often does best — cater to the elite.
The media powerhouse built by Michael Bloomberg, now incidentally mayor of New York, already had 150 journalists here. Even before BGov, that made it the biggest news operation in town aside from the Washington Post. The site is already most of the way toward increasing Bloomberg’s staff in the capital city by another 150.
Workers for the website include not just veteran reporters but academics and policy analysts. The BGov team intends to be first not only to report minutiae — who got a subcommittee appointment on the Hill — but also to post “deep dives” and analysis that explain government to the business world.
Customers pay $5,700 a year for access to a trove of information — campaign contributions breakdowns, analysis of federal contracting, directories of agency and congressional staff members and a granular parsing of legislation and regulations.
The expansion continues a trend of recent years in Washington: While general-interest news organizations cut reporters in the face of shrinking ad revenue, outlets aimed at a specialty clientele expand. The niche outlets rely almost entirely on subscriptions, not ads.
A whirlwind visit to the dual Bloomberg newsroom this week left me with conflicting symptoms: heart lightened in the presence of so many journalists making a good living, head spinning at the revenue potential, stomach churning at the notion of so much journalistic firepower directed at so few.
To justify a $5,700-a-year Web membership, the specialty business site must deliver something surpassing what it gives to readers of Bloomberg.com, Business Week magazine and to the 420 other outlets worldwide that republish Bloomberg content. The vast bulk of the company’s nearly $7 billion in revenue last year came from what remains its core business — the Bloomberg Professional service.
BGov envisions an expansion well beyond the company’s core financial clients to congressional staffers, agency officials, lobbyists, trade organizations and corporations around the U.S. — willing to pay for what the company sells as the most thorough look at the business ramifications of the Capitol hustle.
“There is immense value for our clients in this detailed information,” said Chris Walters, one of the executives overseeing the startup. With $600 billion in government discretionary spending up for grabs each year, such detailed information makes a modest “information investment” more than worthwhile, Walters said.
Bloomberg is not alone. CQ (or Congressional Quarterly) has long been the brand name in the business of tracking legislation. It has lost some luster (and a flock of reporters to Bloomberg) but is being remade after its purchase by the Economist Group of Britain. Politico.com, the free website and last broadly ambitious startup in D.C., has expanded into the pay space with Politico Pro. The site goes for about $2,500 a year, with an additional $1,000 for each policy area subscribers want to add.
Perhaps the biggest challenge inside the Bloomberg newsrooms has been how widely to disseminate the news that its battalion of reporters rakes in. “The creators of the site want to keep as much information as tightly held as possible,” said one journalist, who asked to remain anonymous. “Reporters understand the business reasons for doing that. But they want to get their stuff out there. So there is a tension.”
Those who run the site acknowledge that finding the right platform is a constant point of discussion. They stress that they are giving as wide a distribution to material as they can, without making new BGov subscribers feel their premium payments aren’t worth the price. In the coming days they may experiment with publishing short teasers from the site where a broader audience can see them.
BGov Executive Editor Susan Goldberg and Managing Editor Mike Riley — she was previously top editor at the San Jose Mercury News and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he led editorial operations at Congressional Quarterly — pointed to stories they have pushed from the paid site into the mainstream.
One began as a chart on BGov. It showed how some members of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness had been growing jobs, all right, but largely overseas. The information became the basis of a storythat was published to the much wider Bloomberg News audience.
It’s hard to miss the signs of Bloomberg’s ascendance in Washington’s media and political elites. Rubin’s co-editor at the new opinion site, Bloomberg View, is David Shipley, formerly head of the New York Times op-ed pages. Leading Bloomberg’s promotional effort is Sarah Feinberg, past right hand to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Obama White House.
It’s a small, cozy world along the steamy Potomac. But is this good for the people who don’t know K Street from the Rockville Pike?
A study by the nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism two years ago noted how the “balance of information” in Washington was shifting from the many to the few. Newspapers laid off reporters. Trade publications and niche websites hired them.
“It’s part of a larger pay-to-play culture that worries a lot of people,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the media watchdog. “Now people who can afford to know things now and know things faster will.”
Nonprofits and foundations have filled some of the general interest hole with a trickle of reporters. Here’s to anyone who can figure out how to open the spigot a little wider, with a flow of reporters for the rest of us, who want to know if the government is working, not whether it can make us a buck.