Tuesday 17 November 2009

Bloomberg v The New York Times: Who Will Provide the Contents?

While academics (particularly the U.S. kind) continue to engage in the "high protection/low protection" struggle for the Ivory Tower soul-of-copyright theory, a quite a different struggle is taking place at the level of journalism and the contents they they provide to the public. There, the matter is, quite simply, one of business survival. "Who shall live and who shall die", in the words of the liturgy.

An interesting angle on this struggle was described in the Sunday, November 15 edition of nytimes.com (and summarized on the New York Times podcast--"Weekend Business"). Entitled "At Bloomberg, Modest Strategy to Rule the World", the piece by Stephanie Clifford and Julie Creswell chronicles the efforts of Bloomberg L.P. to become quite simply, in the words of Andrew Lack of the company, to become "the world's most influential news organization."

Heady aspirations indeed. From its beginnings in 1981 through to its place as the leading purveyor of financial information via the eponymous "Bloomberg terminal", this highly profitable company has branched out into tv and radio, and also the print media (as well as seeing its founder--Michael Bloomberg--recently elected for a third term as mayor of New York City). In particular, their recent acquisition of the venerable magazine Business Week signals an intention to expand their audience and readership as well as to try and resuscitate the declining, if still iconic, publication.

I have to admit: I am a podcast addict of Bloomberg programmes; I find the formula of interviews across a wide spectrum of business and related topics to be an attractive way to remain current on significant issues. I also listen to several daily New York Times podcasts. As well, since 1981, I have been a subscriber of Business Week. This means that there is a kind of personal engagement in these contents that drew my special attention to the New York Times piece.

And so the speculation: In light of their efforts, how does Bloomberg stack up with the paragon of old media, the New York Times? Strictly speaking, the two are not precisely rivals, since one could argue that Bloomberg is primarily a business-related enterprise, while the New York Times is a full-content newspaper. That said, a senior Bloomberg official referred to The Economist as the model for a revamped Business Week. If so, the comparison seems more direct and more compelling. So here are my thoughts.

1. The case in favour of Bloomberg seems to be based on the premise that Bloomberg has the crucial advantage--ready cash. While the New York Times, and the print media more generally, struggle cash-wise, Bloomberg seemingly can throw oodles of the stuff at achieving its publishing dreams. One proof of this is reported hiring binge of journalists by Bloomberg, while the New York Times has been reducing its staff.

Will Cash Be King in the World of Journalism?

2. On the other hand, the New York Times is first and foremost a journalistic enterprise, primarily in print form, and more hesitatingly in the online environment. It excels in content, albeit frequently with an noticeable editorial slant. Never a great money-maker even in the best of times, it is struggling to stay afloat in the current economic climate.

3. The upshot is that Bloomberg is betting that being able to make use of the ample cash being thrown off from its content business will provide the basis for establishing an equally dominant position in the world of journalistic contents. That remains to be seen: Money will certainly help, but it is hardly a guarantee of ultimate success. As the phrase goes, "one way to make a small fortune is to spend a large fortune."

4. As for the New York Times, quality content may or may not be enough to succeed commercially in an increasingly online world, where "free" is the reader's expectation, if not the norm. The ability of the New York Times to monetize its content in a world where advertising plays a smaller and smaller role can only be described as challenging.

5. And so a thought: If Bloomberg has the cash, but uncertain capabilities in contents, while the New York Times is exactly in the opposite position, why not have Bloomberg simply acquire the New York Times? This is what another media giant-Rupert Murdoch--has done with his purchase of the Wall Street Journal. "Nonsense", you might say, and that is fair enough. But if so, what alternative suggestions do you have for Bloomberg and the New York Times? After all, quality journalism that is commercially robust is in everyone's interest.

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