THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Budget Cuts at the Times Helped Give NYC Bloomberg III

Bloomberg (the Business) Conquers The World

I was struck on Saturday by the New York Times' long (nearly 3,000 word) article entitled "At Bloomberg, Modest Strategy to Rule the World".

Some choice excerpts:

...the data behemoth that Michael R. Bloomberg created and named after himself in 1981, long before he became mayor of New York, finally has the reach, resources and appetites to try snaring the mantle of Most Influential -- at least in the rarefied world of business news.

...Publishing giants like Condé Nast, Time Inc. and the New York Times... have laid off people and scaled back. Bloomberg... has one thing they don't right now: money to throw around.

...Bloomberg... editorial staff (which includes radio, TV and Web site workers) now numbers 2,200, compared with 1,250 journalists at The Times and 1,900 at Dow Jones (a figure that includes the newswires and the Journal staff).

When the 80-year-old BusinessWeek went on the block, Bloomberg opened its wallet and snatched it away from circling private equity firms in October for just $5 million in cash

...The time has come, company officials say, to move beyond a hard-core clientele of financial information hounds.

"We need a broader audience," says Daniel L. Doctoroff, Bloomberg's president. "The history of this company is you do the counterintuitive, countercyclical thing. It's part of our DNA."

Bloomberg (the Man) Conquers NYC, Again?

Mike Bloomberg still owns most of this company and is involved with major decisions like buying BusinessWeek. For this reason, I've wondered why these well-known plans for global business news domination weren't a bigger issue in the recent mayoral race. When you (a) provide data to most of the business world, (b) report on the business world (in print, web, and broadcast mediums), and (c) are the mayor (ie pretty much the "King") of the city where many of the most important business activities in the world take place, it just makes me wonder...

We wouldn't want Rupert Murdoch to be mayor of NYC, would we? So, why do we want Mike Bloomberg?

Well, in what for me is the bombshell parallel news of the day, it looks to me as if - while we now have "Bloomberg III" (his third term as mayor) - we just may have been flying blind when we gave it to him. I'm not referring to his business dealings. They were being reported, even thought they didn't catch fire as an issue.

A Voting Public Flying Blind

Mike Bloomberg won by a much smaller margin than was expected. Yet, the day before the election most New Yorkers (myself included) assumed the race was going to be a blow out. There was no reporting that suggested Bill Thompson had a chance of winning.

The Bloomberg campaign had been telling the public that Bloomberg would be the inevitable winner all along. That was to be expected.

But here's what pushed the scenario of the close of the election from politics as usual to tragedy (or farce): There was a failure of reporting at the New York Times caused by budget cuts. I'll say that again.

Due to budget cuts, the New York Times failed to give its reporters what they needed (a new poll) so they could accurately report the state of the race in a way that would reach the readers of The Times in the most effective way possible.

All The News We Can Afford To Print

As reported in today's paper by Clark Hoyt, the New York Times' Public Editor, in the final stage of the election, the New York Times failed to order a poll be taken that would have given its reporters facts to counter the Bloomberg campaign's spin machine. The Times also (for reasons not explained) failed to send a reporter to cover a news conference by the Marist Institute (a polling organization) in the finals days of the campaign. At that news conference, reporters were warned that the race was going to be closer than had been expected.

What follows is the most relevant section of Clark Hoyt's report, which I urge you to read so you can absorb all the details of how the New York Times wound up reporting the impression that Bloomberg would win easily (the spin) rather than the facts that the race was close:

The paper did not do its own polling in the fall. Janet Elder, the editor in charge of polling, said it was a budget-driven decision that still upsets her. In The Times's only poll, in June, a majority of those responding said they wanted someone else as mayor, even though Bloomberg faced no formal challenger at that point and there was broad approval of his performance in office.

[...]

In their press releases, Marist and Quinnipiac emphasized the gap between the candidates, which was as high as 18 points in Quinnipiac's polls. That gap got headlines on the Times Web site. The printed paper did not carry full articles on the polls and did not name them, referring only to Bloomberg's lead or Thompson's poor showing in "polls." Had The Times put less emphasis on the spread and more on the fact that Bloomberg was stuck at roughly 50 percent, readers would have been better served.

Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute, said he tried to warn reporters at a news conference -- which The Times didn't attend -- that the race would be closer. Carroll pointed to a caution in his "blowout" press release that said such races tend to tighten.

[...]

Carolyn Ryan (who edited the riveting "what really happened during the campaign" story by Michael Barbaro (published the day after the election) that described how close the Bloomberg campaign knew the race really was) says Bill Thompson was faltering in the polls? That's not consistent with Mr. Barbaro's story, in which he reported:

In many ways, what the campaign was selling was a charade. Inside the campaign, pollsters and consultants fretted over surveys that showed New Yorkers angry over term limits, anguished over the economy and eager for change. Their data showed that Mr. Bloomberg's re-election numbers were alarmingly low for a two-term incumbent, a fact the campaign consistently sought to shield from outsiders, but which embarrassingly spilled into public view on Election Day.

Janet Elder, the editor in charge of polling, thinks the story of the June survey is what the New York Times reported throughout? I'm sorry. The reporting leading up to election day -- as Mr. Hoyt calls it -- was more Bloomberg the invincible than Bloomberg the vulnerable.

Normally, readers wonder about whether reporters get their facts straight. But in this case, without a fresh poll commissioned by the Times to report on, its reporters had no facts to get straight or not!

As I've read about budget and staff cuts at the Times, I've wondered whether or not this was affecting the quality of what is being reported. Now, with proof that a poll (of the kind that would have been given extra prominence for being a Times poll) was not commissioned for budgetary reasons and the usual "self justification" by the Times' staff for how reporting Bloomberg's invincibility was really reporting how vulnerable he was, I don't have to wonder any more.

Now, I can replace wondering with worrying... as "All the news that's fit to print" devolves into "All the news we can afford to print".

It's such a shame.

Oh, but I will continue to wonder on one particular issue. I'll wonder what would have happened if some of the money the Times spent on the 3,000 word article celebrating the Bloomberg corporation's plans for world domination had gone into commissioning that poll. Hmmm...

FYI, I'm aiming to write two related articles the rest of this week. Call it my "NYC week." This place is my home town, after all.

The first will be on what Bloomberg III could mean for NYC and America, focusing on the statement by Daniel L. Doctoroff, Bloomberg's president. "The history of this company is you do the counterintuitive, countercyclical thing. It's part of our DNA." What could a "counterintuitive, countercyclical" third Bloomberg administration look like?

And the second will be on how the New York Times can take a page from the way the Bloomberg organization thinks. If the Bloomberg organization can think that "...The time has come to move beyond a hard-core clientele of financial information hounds. We need a broader audience," then what would happen if the Times organization were to have those same thoughts?

Stay tuned...