Thursday, March 27, 2014

A controversy at Bloomberg shows why subsidizing journalism is a bad idea

One popular idea for financing journalism is to create a non-journalistic business that generates enough profits to effectively subsidize the production of news stories. A controversy at the financial information company Bloomberg illustrates some reasons that this is a bad idea.

Most journalism firms produce news and information to attract an audience that advertisers want to reach. Advertisers then pay the firm for access to the audience. Sometimes these firms also sell subscriptions to generate additional revenue. So the production of news that audiences consider credible or entertaining is essential to the economic survival of such firms.
Suppose a firm relies on a non-journalistic business to produce the majority of its revenue and profits. Suppose the firm also produces some news stories, but they only generate a fraction of the firm’s revenue. The firm’s non-journalistic business is essential to its economic survival. But journalism’s role is more ambiguous because the firm cannot afford to publish news that substantially reduces the amount of revenue generated by its non-journalistic business. 

Bloomberg offers an example of what can happen when there is a conflict between a non-journalistic business that generates most of a firm’s revenue and a secondary business that produces news.

Bloomberg has about 15,000 employees who provide data and information to stockbrokers, bankers and other financial professionals around the world. About 16 percent of Bloomberg’s employees work for Bloomberg News.

The news service was created to help sell subscriptions to special computer terminals that generate the majority of Bloomberg’s revenue. The terminals give subscribers access to a wealth of valuable data and other information, and subscriptions cost an estimated $20,000 to $24,000 a year. Bloomberg’s revenue was estimated to be $7.9 billion in 2012, and most of that was generated by approximately 315,000 subscriptions to Bloomberg terminals.
So Bloomberg fits the model of a company where the majority of revenue comes from a non-journalistic businesses. Even if the news service is not directly subsidized, the news service could not exist independently from Bloomberg’s other lines of business.

Bloomberg’s news service is focused on daily coverage of business and economic news. The stories are intended to help people who subscribe to the company’s terminals make informed business decisions. The news service also produces investigative stories and other distinguished journalism.

However, Bloomberg’s reliance on revenue from its terminals creates a potential for conflict if news stories threaten that revenue source.

A conflict over news coverage of China
A conflict between revenue and news appears to be the reason that three Bloomberg journalists have quit after internal disagreements about two investigative stories that were never published.  One unpublished story examined foreign banks that employed the children of powerful Chinese leaders. Another unpublished story examined a wealthy Chinese businessman and his relationships with China’s leaders.
About 15 months before executives decided to withhold the stories, Bloomberg had allowed its journalists to publish a different series of stories that critically examined the wealth of China’s elite.
The publication of those stories prompted the Chinese government to deny visa requests from Bloomberg journalists, keeping them out of the country. Sales of subscriptions to Bloomberg terminals in China slowed after the stories were published. These consequences probably influenced Bloomberg’s decision to withhold subsequent stories that were critical of China’s elite.
After Bloomberg’s decision to withhold the stories became public, the company’s chairman said that Bloomberg should reconsider the publication of articles that “wander away a little bit” from its core coverage of “the local business and economic environment.”

He did not specify which articles should be reconsidered, but he did say the articles could jeopardize the sale of subscriptions to Bloomberg terminals in China. The company was also concerned it might lose access to financial data from China, data that Bloomberg subscribers need to make money.

Withholding investigative news stories can damage a news organization’s credibility.
But at Bloomberg that concern was reversed. This was a case where publication of investigative stories might have damaged the company's credibility and potentially harmed its subscribers.

Bloomberg’s economic self-interest 

Why would publication of the stories have such counter-intuitive effects at Bloomberg?

Publishing stories about foreign firms that hire the children of powerful Chinese officials might force the foreign firms to end those arrangements, costing them business and profits. Publication of the stories might also lead to investigations or new regulations that make it difficult for firms entering China to gain an advantage by hiring the children of powerful officials.

So the business people who subscribe to Bloomberg’s terminals might regard withholding the stories as a sensible decision that helps business.

Publication could also put at risk the profits Chinese officials gain from their relationship with a wealthy businessman. The stories could also put at risk future profits and jobs at foreign firms for Chinese officials’ children.
So Bloomberg, the company’s customers, and Chinese officials all have self-interested reasons to oppose publication of the stories. Bloomberg journalists favored publication, but their contribution to the company’s revenue was too small to win the argument.
Bloomberg’s executives probably withheld publication because they had learned from publishing the earlier stories that critical reporting in China can damage Bloomberg’s economic interests. And responsible executives should put their company’s economic interests first, that is the very essence of their job.
The advantage of a traditional model for funding news
The controversy became public knowledge because The New York Times published stories about what happened at Bloomberg. The Times has also published its own critical stories about China, including reports on U.S. firms that hired the children of Chinese officials. Those stories did indeed  result in an investigation of one major U.S. bank. Chinese officials have also banned or threatened to ban Times reporters from working in China.

Why does the Times publish these stories when Bloomberg did not?

The Times is a much smaller company than Bloomberg, it only had about $1.59 billion in revenue in 2012.  However, the Times doesn’t have the kind of internal economic conflicts that created problems for Bloomberg. The Times uses a traditional model for funding journalism, and most of its revenue comes from circulation and advertising. Journalism is essential to the company’s economic survival.

Publishing critical stories about China does not harm an important revenue source at the Times. Instead, these stories might have the opposite effect.

The stories add to the newspaper’s reputation as a trustworthy source of news. That reputation is critical for attracting the audience that advertisers pay to reach. The Times is also generating increasing amounts of revenue from selling subscriptions, and some readers might consider investigative stories valuable enough to pay for.
Does this mean the Times would never allow its economic interests to conflict with its journalism?  Of course not.
But the reliance on credible journalism at the Times means the paper must focus on stories that its readers and advertisers prefer. This creates incentives to publish stories, not to withhold them. However, the Times will still shy away from stories that violate the preferences of its readers and advertisers.
Bloomberg is a large company with enormous resources and a history of supporting journalism. But Bloomberg had no choice when confronted with the possibility that some news stories could substantially harm its core business. The company had to withhold the harmful stories.
Those who argue that non-journalistic businesses should be used to finance journalism should rethink their argument. There will always be a potential for economic conflicts in these cases, conflicts that can damage the journalistic enterprise.
Journalists should not look to other businesses to help support what they do.  The journalism business will function best when it has to pay its own way.