An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present

A project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

The Riptide blog

Randall Rothenberg: What about Bloomberg?

Even before releasing Riptide we heard from a number of people who felt that we missed particular players in the evolution of digital news. We explain in Riptide’s “About” section that we did our best to cover a lot of ground in only three months, the term of our Fellowship. We freely admit that we couldn’t cover everything and everyone. In part, that’s why we built Riptide on the web. We hope that others will fill in the blanks and update the corpus as new events occur. The IAB’s Randall Rothenberg, who interviewed Sir Martin Sorrell for us, was particularly concerned about our having neglected to interview anyone from Bloomberg. His post, below, explains why:

“Riptide” is an important contribution to the history of the practice of journalism, the business of news, and the effects of media — but it’s only a first step. I hope you go further, and explore some roads that were not on your early map.

For example, I believe you erred by ignoring the role Bloomberg played, especially as a test of the proposition you assume to be true but never explore in your document: Does news indeed have objective value?

The lack of attention to that question is, I think, a flaw in this first draft, as well as in the thinking of many news industry executives. It’s implicit in many of the “Riptide” interviews: Journalists and journalism executives believed news was valuable because news companies had always made money. Therefore, none of them felt compelled to investigate this fundamental presumption.

Bloomberg actually presented a controlled market test of this question. For many, many consumers, Bloomberg was their first taste of what later came to be called the Internet. Granted, it was a private network. But it offered them many of the benefits the IP-based Internet later would offer the world: copious information, services, email, community, community connectivity, and massive lollygagging opportunities. It was also the first large interactive company to offer a test of the value of news to paying customers — the first place where the value of news wasn’t just a matter of received wisdom or ideology, but a business proposition.

I realize Bloomberg was not a perfect test of this principle, by any means. They weren’t charging independently for “the news”; instead, it was an add-on to the company’s analytics services. But Mike Bloomberg, Tom Secunda and the other early Bloombergians felt the news was so essential to the company’s business that when Dow Jones threatened to pull DJNS off the Bloomberg terminals, they thought they had no choice but to start their own news service.

It’s also not a perfect test of the value of news because Bloomberg’s market was a B2B market; they believed their customers required the news because they made money from it. (Bloomberg was where I learned that beating the competition by a half-second on the news of a Bundesbank interest rate change could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to your customers.) But the same would be true of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and you’re not segregating them out of your narrative simply because they are business-news companies.

Net, I think Bloomberg was a crucial piece of the evolution of the Internet and news. Bloomberg provided a test of the value of news to an important consumer/customer base; it was an experiment launched by non-news people in a non-news company; and their test helped them in some way to grow to become one of the most valuable and influential companies in the news and information business. What did they learn, and is it more broadly applicable to journalism? Therein I think is an important part of this tale — the next phase of “Riptide.”

September 5, 2013, 12:50 pm

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