Many in the mayor’s inner circle—longtime advisers Patti Harris, Sheekey, and Ed Skyler—were said to be wary about his decision to run again. In private, some aides wondered whether the mayor was seeking a third term in part because he simply didn’t have anything else to do. This time around, another term was not an option, and his presidential flirtation was no more than perfunctory. Last winter, Bill Daley, then Obama’s chief of staff, discreetly called the mayor and asked him if he wanted to be head of the World Bank—Robert Zoellick was stepping down. But Bloomberg did not want to have a boss, and he’d already begun to retool his life for his post-mayoralty. He turned the job down.
The foundation isn’t the only way, however, that Bloomberg plans to keep mattering. One morning in March, he was in Melville, Long Island, pitching his pension-reform agenda to the Newsday editorial board. In Albany, the Legislature was about to rule on Governor Cuomo’s bid to curb entitlement spending, and Bloomberg was pressing hard to get the bill through. He had gone live on local television with a $1 million ad buy to advocate on behalf of the issue. As Bloomberg stood up to grab a cookie from the spread, an editor made a request. “How likely is it that you’d buy the New York Times?”
“It’s not for sale,” Bloomberg shot back. “And why would I want to buy the Times?”
“You’re a philanthropist,” the editor said. Bloomberg smiled.
“You’re the first person who’s given me an honest answer to that.”
Purchasing the New York Times is perhaps the most often discussed next act for Michael Bloomberg. He may not see the Times as a business, but on a certain level, the paper is an irresistible trophy. Bloomberg so far has made no moves to obtain it.
Are there any real prospects of his buying the Times? It’s hard to say. For one thing, it would be unseemly for him to make a move now, while he’s still mayor. And his continued denial of any interest in the Times might be just a good long-view posture. While the immediate financial pressures on the Sulzbergers have subsided, Bloomberg surely knows a time may come when they wouldn’t be able to resist a generous offer. (Bloomberg has demonstrated a patience that has paid off in the past: In the depths of the financial crisis, he bought back Merrill Lynch’s 20 percent stake in Bloomberg LP at a steep discount.)
And his ego certainly relishes the chatter. Years ago, while on a trip to Paris, he asked a friend over breakfast, “Do you think I could buy the New York Times?” When the friend said it wasn’t sold in the hotel, he said, “No, do you think I could buy the Times?”
There’s a part of him that sees the Sulzbergers as just bad businesspeople. In this regard, Bloomberg surely shares a kinship with Murdoch. “Mike hates heirs,” says a friend. “When Arthur did that thing with the moose [brandishing a stuffed moose at a staff town-hall about former editor Howell Raines], Mike said, ‘He has always been such a lightweight.’ That whole incident revealed he’s not up to the job.”
And Bloomberg already has a media business. And though he is adamant that he will not return to run it, it remains a means for him to wield influence. Owning the Times would amplify that considerably.
For now, however, he seems content to compete with the Times. And Bloomberg sources say he may just buy the Financial Times instead, which would be cheaper and a tighter editorial fit with his existing businesses. With its strong international brand, owning the paper would open up access in foreign capitals, something that is appealing to the mayor as he eyes the future. When I ask Winker if owning the FT could help the company, he hints that it could. “Is it a very fine newspaper? Absolutely,” he says. “If there were somehow a possibility on the margin, of course it could only help. I think really that’s how we thought about Businessweek. Did we need to have it? No … is it essential to Bloomberg LP? No. Could these help us? Yeah, it’s possible, sure.” The businesspeople at Bloomberg are more bearish. “There’s no need for us to buy a newspaper,” Bloomberg president and CEO Dan Doctoroff tells me. “And I think if you look at how we’re succeeding and the measure that we care about more than anything else—which is gaining influence—we’re on our way to get where we want.”
By many measures, Bloomberg News boasts far more journalistic horsepower than the Gray Lady. The news service has nearly 2,400 editorial staffers spread across the globe, with 146 bureaus in 72 countries. In Washington, Bloomberg’s bureau has over 300 employees. And as the Times and the Journal have been buffeted by the brutal economics of the web, Bloomberg has gone on a hiring spree, populating its newsroom with veteran journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners Daniel Hertzberg and Daniel Golden from the Journal, and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett. The talent has brought in a procession of scoops, like last year’s stunning account of the Fed’s trillion-dollar bailout of financial institutions—after a multiyear battle to pry open the central bank’s books. But for all the acquiring, Bloomberg News almost entirely lacks the kind of political and cultural identity that comes with a paper like the Times. That was part of the raison d’être of Bloomberg View, an online op-ed page and think tank launched in May 2011 headed at first by longtime Times op-ed stalwart David Shipley and former State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin. It was quickly staffed with a full roster of newspaper and magazine talent, people like Jeff Goldberg, Michael Kinsley, Ezra Klein, and Jon Alter.