Bloomberg LP earned fabulous profits off its obsession with statistics. None, though, controls the day-to-day lives of the financial news drones like the "breaking news points" metrics scheme. Meet the most Stalinist production system in capitalist journalism.
Bloomberg News's tyrannical leader Matthew Winkler has long monitored his newsrooms' competitiveness fanatically; the Columbia Journalism Review reported two years ago that many writers were frightened to leave their desks due to an electronic monitoring system that reported when their keyboards were inactive for 15 minutes.
At some point in the recent past, Bloomberg managers systematized their performance paranoia into the Breaking News Points system. We've been told the system was implemented as part of new metrics mania sparked by the financial information company's goal of $10 billion in annual revenue. Under the system, news bulletins are tagged in the internal computer system as follows, in ascending quantity of points:
- FIRST: When a story is proven to be Breaking NewsTM.
- FOLLOW: A competitor followed the story.
- MMWIN: When market reaction to a story can be demonstrated. Presumably stands for for "market-moving win" or somesuch.
- BEST: Your story is so awesome it will be included in Winkler's uplifting and inspirational weekly e-newsletter about how much you all suck, under the heading "Best of the Week" (read: "least lamentable").
Here's the problem with these rankings, other than total cheesiness: They are thoroughly gamed by Bloomberg editors and writers. The system "encourages only the worst of behaviors," a Bloomberg insider tells us. And no wonder, since Breaking News Points are used to hand out bonuses and even in some cases decide who gets to hold on to their jobs.
Exhibit A: Bloomberg reporters magically produced nearly three times as many scoops in one quarter of 2009 as they had in all of 2008, according to an internal memo we wrote about previously. And Bloomberg actually bragged about this obviously ginned-up comparison as though it were meaningful in its internal report. The company later stood by that report as "accurate" when we asked the about it.
Exhibit B: The below memo circulated by Bloomberg's Projects and Investigations chief Amanda Bennet. The veteran business journalist has two Pulitzer Prizes under her belt, but these days has to bribe Bloomberg staffers into performing actual big-J Journalism for her by offering them these insidious "Breaking News Points:"
I hope you noticed an email I sent around a couple of weeks ago, naming the 400+ people who worked with our team over the past year.
Matt [Winkler] and I wanted to make sure that ALL our people get rewarded for major efforts like that. So working with Reto and Shelby, we came up with a metrics solution.
Anyone whose byline appears on a P&I project will get 10 breaking news points. We know this is a major commitment of time for people who are already are working so hard to break news and get scoops for our readers. This will be a way of recognizing the contributions of everyone at Bloomberg — not just the reporters, but their editors and team leaders as well — to these high-impact exclusive longer-term efforts.
We have some terrific projects in process. We're eager for more, and looking forward to working with you.
Exhibit C: We're told that the Breaking News Points system has been sufficiently problematic that's it's being totally overhauled "yet again" for 2010.
Best of luck with that, glorious comrades in News Production. Our enlightened proletariat is advancing the metrics revolution in its own way. If any of you would like to report additional counterrevolutionary activity, you know how to reach us.
Photo via davidmartinD200's Flickr