Bloomberg palace intrigue continues, as the king consolidates his power

July 10, 2015, 8:46 PM UTC
Photograph by Andrew Burton — Getty Images

When Michael Bloomberg was winding up his term as mayor of New York City and speculation turned to what he might do, the CEO of the financial-data company that bears his name said the ex-mayor would probably be an absentee landlord, and would “likely spend a few hours a day working from his new desk on the fifth floor.” It’s not clear whether that was supposed to be a joke, but suffice it to say that Michael Bloomberg has done the exact opposite. He continues to wield power like a feudal lord.

In the latest sign of the founder flexing his muscles, web editor Joshua Topolsky—who was hired with much fanfare from The Verge, and re-launched the Bloomberg Business website with a splash of color and unorthodox design—has reportedly been fired after having a falling-out with the CEO. At the same time, editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, who was Bloomberg’s personal choice for the position, has been consolidating his power at the expense of some other executives, including former Atlantic president Justin Smith.

There are more than a few Game of Thrones analogies that could be made at this point, but regardless, it seems clear that Bloomberg has as tight a grip on the reins of his $9-billion company as he ever had before he left to become mayor of New York. And according to some close to the firm, he is determined to fix some of the problems that have been bubbling up over the past year or so.

Getting rid of a web editor certainly doesn’t fall into the same category as firing a CEO, but Topolsky’s departure is being read by many as just one of the pieces of the puzzle associated with Bloomberg’s tightening fist. According to several sources that Capital New York spoke to, the founder didn’t like the brash (some might say irritating) new look of the site, and he and Topolsky fought over that and other aspects of the media company’s web strategy.

On the record, everyone at the company is being very nice about Topolsky and his sudden departure: The former Verge editor thanked the Bloomberg team for being brilliant, and said he was leaving “with love and admiration,” Smith said he would be missed, and Micklethwait praised his “inventiveness and flair.” The editor-in-chief also wished Topolsky well “in his new endeavors,” a classic piece of corporate-speak often used when someone is fired but no one wants to say so.

Micklethwait, a former editor of The Economist, apparently didn’t like the redesign much, despite his praise for Topolsky—and perhaps he was also looking for a power move against Smith, who hired the web editor and runs the editorial side with executive editor Josh Tyrangiel. While the Bloomberg redesign got some good reviews from those who saw it as a welcome departure from stodgy business sites, others hated it. Tech analyst Ben Thompson, for example, said on Twitter he was glad “someone [is] getting canned.”

Smith has reportedly been clashing with Micklethwait, as the latter tries to cement his authority over the editorial operations of the company. Smith was hired by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff, and given responsibility for both the business and editorial aspects of company’s consumer products. But when Micklethwait arrived, according to Capital New York, he made it clear that he expected all of that to be under his purview.

“Now Micklethwait was on the scene, empowered by Bloomberg himself, and he believed he should have sole editorial custody of the media group. Things got a little ugly. As a source close to the situation put it: ‘Micklethwait was aggressive about carving out his territory.'”

All of this palace intrigue takes place against the backdrop of a company that is in transition, from a world in which a data terminal — like the one Bloomberg rents to stockbrokers for $20,000 a year — creates a competitive advantage worth billions, to one in which web-based platforms and services are slowly but surely chipping away at that foundation.

Bloomberg is trying to expand on several different fronts, by building up its expertise in web-based commentary (something former editor-in-chief Matt Winkler hated) through sites like Bloomberg View, as well as a new real-time analysis and commentary portal that is expected to launch soon, according to Capital New York. But every shift in emphasis of this nature causes a ripple effect throughout the organization, as one staffer detailed in a recent memo about the dysfunctional state of the Washington bureau.

In some ways, as I’ve argued before, Bloomberg is fighting a battle very similar to the one being fought by newspapers and other traditional media entities. The company’s success, and virtually all of its billions in revenue, is still dependent on a massive legacy business, with huge legacy costs. But that business is in decline. How does the company build a new business, while continuing to run the old one? His control over the company may be absolute, but that’s still a question Michael Bloomberg is going to have to answer.

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