Bloomberg's Plan for World Domination

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Summers

With an army of reporters and wonky information services, the media company is expanding from Wall Street to Washington, Where it hopes to control even more.

Bloomberg was everywhere, like Bloomberg likes to be.

In New Hampshire, on a Tuesday night in October, Bloomberg Television was sponsoring its first-ever presidential-primary debate. A Bloomberg-branded hospitality tent had been erected to promote new products called Bloomberg Government and Bloomberg Law, and amid stacks of free Bloomberg hoodies, as name-brand journalists for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg View munched on lobster rolls, there stood off to one side a replica of the Bloomberg Professional terminal. It might as well have been a shrine. "The Bloomberg," as the financial-data machine is known, is a computer so omniscient that God would use it if he day-traded, and the $6 billion it funnels into the company every year had paid for everything in sight.

Other media outlets don't have a cash cow anything like this. And BGov chairman Kevin Sheekey couldn't help but rub it in, walking up to the terminal's blinking prompt and challenging one guest: "Why don't you look up the price of the New York Times Co.?"

Ouch. As most of the news industry withers, Bloomberg is booming. Terminal money, which accounts for 80 percent of revenue, has helped the company hire more reporters and editors than anyone else on the planet--more than 2,700 of them--over the last 20 years, from Abuja, Nigeria, to Zagreb, Croatia. More recently it has launched powerful new tools for lobbyists, lawmakers, and other power brokers. Long averse to acquisitions, Bloomberg has also started buying up things it covets, like Businessweek magazine and, just this August, the legal-political research behemoth BNA. There is talk that the Financial Times might be its next meal.

All of which means that by the time Michael Bloomberg, 88 percent owner of Bloomberg L.P., leaves New York's City Hall two years from now, he will have his name stamped on some instruments of surprisingly deep influence.

But this isn't just another story about a company beating the odds and growing in a down economy. Bloomberg the company is not all that well known beyond Wall Street; its expansion has managed to be both subtle and seismic, and could fundamentally alter not just the kind of news Americans get but the events in the news themselves. While one guiding principle of traditional journalism is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," Bloomberg has made its money comforting the comfortable--plying high-spending traders and other business insiders with all the data they need to do their jobs with confidence.

Now it's taking that formula to Washington. When Bloomberg bought BNA for $990 million in August, most Americans had never heard of the Bureau of National Affairs or its 350 newsletters on topics like tax, health care, and labor. It doesn't produce popular scoops--instead it churns out nuts-and-bolts information on things like an appeals-court judge's ruling on a patent dispute; when the House Appropriations Committee will mark up an EPA funding bill; and how telecom giants will benefit from a moratorium on wireless taxes. Which means every lawyer, lobbyist, and law-maker in the capital depends on BNA's proprietary data to do his or her job and gain an edge over competitors. From that angle, BNA is just the kind of company that Bloomberg--already a powerhouse among business insiders--could use to extend its power into new markets, in this case the "influencing community" inside the Beltway.

"It's utterly logical," says Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and American Lawyer. "I lusted after BNA when I owned all my legal publications, because it's very high-margin, high-priced, and specialized information."

Bloomberg had recently launched two new subscription services online, BLaw and BGov, each with the company's trademark approach of seducing professionals with a fire hose of data, custom-built analytic tools, and proprietary news until they feel unable to make key decisions without consulting Bloomberg. …