The media world is awash with speculation on the heels of the New York Times’ report that Mayor Bloomberg is kicking the tires on the Financial Times, whose “bisque-colored pages” he apparently covets for their short articles and wide international distribution.
It’s clear that Bloomberg likes the FT and has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to adding underloved publications like Businessweek to his news empire. But it’s not immediately obvious — to either an outside observer or, seemingly, to the mayor himself — what Bloomberg LP would do with the FT. After all, Bloomberg News is already a massive, well-staffed journalism organization with an established reach into the same market served by the FT — namely, the kind of people who care primarily about business news and who know their way around a Bloomberg terminal.
Henry Blodget seems to think that Bloomberg would be crazy to buy the FT. (“Your news organization is already vastly more powerful and richer than the Financial Times. If you’re desperate to have a print newspaper, then just start printing one.”) But the problem with creating a newspaper is that it’s too hard to play catch-up. The FT already has shelf space next to the Times and the Journal. Buying it, and revamping it top to bottom, would be infinitely easier than convincing every airport kiosk, high-end hotel, and major-city newsstand to carry a new Bloomberg publication along with the other three.
Make no mistake, the FT faces many challenges, the gravest of which are that it’s a daily newspaper aimed at an audience (business elites and politicians) that long ago stopped getting its news primarily from print publications, and that its online paywall keeps many of its general-audience stories from getting the influence they might otherwise command.
Mayor Bloomberg could be a great FT owner. It’s a storied, respected publication with existing gravitas among the core subscribers of Bloomberg LP’s terminal business, and he would have the resources to put it back on solid ground. But he shouldn’t buy it without a plan. Here are three options for revitalizing the salmon-colored paper:
1.) Combine the FT with Bloomberg Markets.
Bloomberg Markets — the monthly trade magazine that is given away free to all Bloomberg terminal subscribers — is the unsung hero of the Bloomberg media empire. It gets much less buzz than its stepsister publication, Bloomberg Businessweek, primarily because it’s a stodgier brand, not nearly as well designed and laid out, and less accessible to a nonfinancial audience. But some of its long-form investigative journalism, like this month’s expansive profile of Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, is exactly the kind of thing the FT — with its emphasis on short, jumpless stories written in inverted-pyramid structure — is missing.
If Bloomberg bought the FT, he could either make Markets a monthly insert (sort of like the New York Times does with T). Or, better yet, he could fold Markets entirely and move its writers and editors onto the staff of FT Magazine, the supplement that is already included with the U.K. and Ireland editions of the paper on the weekends.
Bloomberg may not want the FT to contain more long-form journalism. He apparently considers short, snappy stories an asset, not a liability. But he already has a news organization that excels at deal scoops and other to-the-point business stories, and he’s set up to deliver them instantly to trading floors around the world. And he already has a buzzy, general-audience magazine. The obvious hole is something that would be more technical than Businessweek but have the wider distribution of a general-audience publication. Making Bloomberg Markets the FT’s long-form arm could bolster the paper’s credibility among the Wall Street crowd with minimal hassle.
2.) Swap the FT’s news reporters for Bloomberg View’s columnists.
The FT is nominally a newspaper, but its biggest draw among business elites for years has been its great stable of columnists and bloggers, who excel at sharp opinions and wonky analysis, along with beloved recurring features like "Lunch with the FT." Those columns are why the paywall works, despite the fact that much of what’s hidden behind it is straight news that is duplicated elsewhere.
Bloomberg View, the op-ed section of Bloomberg News, has the opposite issue. It’s a thoughtful, analysis-driven opinion hub buried in a news organization whose core readers want their stories short, direct, and free of ornamentation.
Mayor Bloomberg could solve both problems at once by sending Bloomberg View’s writers to the FT and adding them to the existing FT columnists behind the paywall. That would turn the paper into a sort of daily Economist-lite, with a minimum of straight news and an all-star cast of first-rate thinkers that existing FT subscribers would likely keep paying for and that could be made available to Bloomberg terminal subscribers as well.
At the same time, he could fold the FT’s news reporters into Bloomberg News, where they would immediately get the resources and leverage of a huge news-gathering organization and where their market-moving scoops would instantly get better distribution and greater impact.
3.) Give Matt Winkler the FT.
Matt Winkler, the hard-driving editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, has nearly single-handedly made that news organization what it is today. (He is, among other things, the force behind the “Bloomberg Way,” the in-house style guide that distills the art of business coverage into a replicable formula.)
But, as the success of Bloomberg Businessweek (which functions as a sort of autonomous region within the Bloomberg empire and routinely breaks Winkler’s strict style rules) has proved, a Bloomberg-branded publication can survive and thrive without Winkler’s immediate supervision. Put more simply, it’s time to give Bloomberg News some fresh blood. Winkler could take on the FT’s revival as a final, legacy-building project, while stepping aside to make room for fresher eyes and a different sensibility at the top of the flagship. (NB: This would probably be in lieu of options one or two, since Winkler has proven that he is a scoop man, for whom neither long-form stories nor op-ed writing carry much appeal.)
It’s worth adding that although some of these steps might succeed conceptually, none of them would guarantee that a Bloomberg-led FT would be a financial success. The Times estimates that the FT is worth $1 billion, give or take, and that kind of price tag makes it hard to justify buying a money-losing paper.
But after Bloomberg departs from office, what he will miss most is influence. Bloomberg News is a successful media organization, but its appeal is parochial and lacks the kind of agenda-setting, daily authority that only the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal can command. If Bloomberg could get that influence in the form of a Bloomberg-owned FT, price and profitability may be two of the least important considerations on his mind.