Bloomberg sale spells profitable future of journalism by numbers

Merrill Lynch, under financial pressure, is selling one of its more valuable assets, a 20 percent stake in Bloomberg, the financial-information business, for $4.5 billion to $5 billion. The sale marks the business's value at $22 billion to $25 billion — four times or more what Rupert Murdoch paid to tuck the Wall Street Journal's publisher, Dow Jones, a far more prestigious name in business news, into News Corp. Under Murdoch's ownership, Journal staffers are groaning about new expectations for productivity. Several highly paid, but not highly prolific, writers have been laid off, including George Anders, one of the biggest names in technology reporting. Join the club, Bloomberg writers would say; they are constantly measured, and perpetually disgruntled. What Bloomberg's high valuation tells us: Expectations of productivity in the news business are here to stay. Prestige and quality are well enough — but only if they make a noticeable difference. Being read matters just as much as being right.

Not all attempts to make wordcraft measurable are sensible. Under Sam Zell, Tribune newspapers are counting words, coming up with the laughable result that Hartford Courant reporters are worth more than their counterparts at the Los Angeles Times. The last thing publishers should be doing is setting up systems that reward the mindless gushing of words. (Gawker Media, the publisher of Valleywag, pays writers a set monthly fee, with a bonus that varies with the number of pageviews their items generate.)

The Bloomberg way — "first word, future word, factual word, fastest word, final word" — emphasizes speed and accuracy in evaluating its reporters. (Some aspects of the news operation's culture may be shifting under new editorial leader Norm Pearlstine, but it's hard to see those basics changing.) News has value when it is actually new, and helps Bloomberg's customers make money.

And for all that, Bloomberg News is a relatively small part of Bloomberg's value proposition. Far more important are the prices that Bloomberg's terminals flash across traders' screens. News stories, in this scenario, are just one more commodity.

Not all journalism lends itself to such coldhearted analysis. Political reportage is a vital public service and, in the absence of local newspapers, it is hard to imagine how it will get funded. (Ironic that Michael Bloomberg, the company's founder, is now New York's mayor.) But it's hard to understand why business reporters, of all people, complain when their chosen career is treated like, well, a business. Merrill Lynch's pending sale of its stake in Bloomberg points to a future when the news is worth more, and those who write it, only as much as their last story. Depressing? Only to journalism careerists.