'The Bloomberg Way': An Inside Look at How the News Organization Covers NewsPublished: January 09, 2012 in Knowledge@Wharton
In a tumultuous media world of layoffs, restructuring, soul-searching and handwringing, Bloomberg News stands out as one of the few growing news services. The organization's New York headquarters throbs with an energy explained only in part by the free coffee and food in the overflowing snack bars and exudes a style that runs deeper than the fish tanks, curved escalator and futuristic furniture. There is something more at Bloomberg: a shared direction, a sense of mission, a common purpose -- a Bloomberg Way.
Every reporter, editor, anchor and producer hired at Bloomberg News gets a copy of The Bloomberg Way, a spiral-bound, 376-page tome that guides more than 2,700 news professionals to write about the world's stocks, bonds, commodities, companies, currencies and economies. Written by editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, the book is a style guide and manifesto, detailing how Bloomberg employees should write, report and behave.
Until November 2011, when Bloomberg made the book's 12th edition public, The Bloomberg Way was available only to employees. Now readers can see for themselves how journalists in one of the world's largest news organizations work.
"The Bloomberg Way is our guide to learning," Winkler says in the introduction, noting that when the first edition was published in 1991, there was no manual for the emerging real-time business newsroom. The Bloomberg Way was meant to be that guide, helping reporters and editors translate business stories that other news outlets ignored. "If we could make Bloomberg's printed and spoken word lucid enough, even to Aunt Agatha, Bloomberg would become a journalistic benchmark for instant perspective on money. And money increasingly was becoming the mother of all stories," Winkler writes.
From the beginning, Bloomberg News was unusual. Created as part of Bloomberg L.P., the financial information company founded by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in 1982, its readers were financial professionals, investors and traders who leased computer terminals to get second-by-second insights on world markets. The newsroom's mandate was "to provide definitive coverage of economies, markets, companies and industries worldwide." Bloomberg stories were not printed on paper; they were flashed across computers screens, and the point of every story was clear: Present the facts that mattered most, as quickly and clearly as possible.
The Bloomberg Way is filled with formulas to achieve that goal. Bloomberg stories should fulfill "The Five Fs" -- that is, they must be First, Factual, Fastest, Final and take Future events into account. No story is complete if it doesn't include "Five Easy Pieces" -- information about the markets, the economy, government, politics and companies. The ideal lead is four paragraphs long and should always include a theme, a quotation, details and a nut paragraph that explains what is at stake. "Bloomberg News stories have a structure as immutable as the rules that govern sonnets and symphonies," Winkler writes.
For aspiring business reporters or anyone who wants to better understand markets, economies and companies, The Bloomberg Way offers chapters on how journalists should cover them. From credit-default swaps to collateralized-debt obligations, technical analysis to Fibonacci charts, it defines financial terms without jargon.
Winkler expects reporters and editors to plan ahead, instructing them to write several story templates in advance of every event. They should maintain lists of the top 10 most important companies, executives, investors and experts on their beats, and know how to reach sources at any hour, if necessary. "Nothing makes people luckier than preparation," writes Winkler in a chapter devoted to just that. "Winners are meticulous about preparing. They are obsessed with preparing. That is what builds confidence."
Accuracy is key. "We want to impress with the quality of our information, not the intricacy of our prose," Winkler writes. "Accuracy is the most important principle in journalism. There is no such thing as being first with news if we're wrong."
If growth is any indication, the formulas work. Little more than two decades after the first Bloomberg byline went out, the news service has expanded to 146 news bureaus in 72 countries producing 5,000 stories a day. Bloomberg Television reaches 310 million households globally. The company bought BusinessWeek -- now Bloomberg Businessweek -- from McGraw-Hill in 2009, created Bloomberg Government in 2010, and in September bought the Bureau of National Affairs, an Arlington, Va.-based legal news service, for just under $1 billion in cash.
One prize Bloomberg News hasn't yet won is a Pulitzer. In journalism circles, some attribute that to the dictates of Bloomberg style. A former Wall Street Journal reporter known for wearing bowties and succumbing to an explosive temper -- the website Gawker once called Winkler "one of the angriest men in media" -- Winkler has been rumored to prohibit reporters from using adjectives, adverbs or even the word "but."
A careful reading of The Bloomberg Way shows that Winkler's rules are not as rigid as journo-legend says. Inspired by the classic writing guide The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, Winkler's guidance echoes many tenets of good writing: "Prefer the short to the long. Prefer the familiar to the fancy. Prefer the specific word to the abstract."
Winkler's prescription for writing even includes what should be written first -- namely, the headline. "Before reporters write a word of narrative -- even the lead -- they should write the headline," Winkler declares. "Nothing focuses a story better than the discipline of first having to report its contents in 63 characters. Asking, 'What's the headline?' helps to focus leads, which are often too long or have too many thoughts."
Winkler argues that writing well means writing accurately. "The Bloomberg Way insists that reporters show, not tell, and not rely on modifiers, because adjectives and adverbs are imprecise," Winkler writes. "Avoid adverbs that are loaded with assertions: lavishly compensated, hugely successful, flatly denied, greatly underestimated. The best reporters assemble the details, anecdotes and comments and then let the readers decide who's right, wrong, guilty or innocent."
Winkler expands the philosophy to characterizations and labels. "Labels mean different things to different people. In politics, who decides whether someone is moderate, conservative, liberal, left wing, right wing?" Winkler asks. Likewise, characterizations reveal judgments that reporters should avoid. Focus on facts, Winkler says, and report what people say and do. A lead asserting that a company "tried to calm fears of big cutbacks" is rewritten to explain the specific: The company's chief executive "pledged in a letter" that he "wouldn't close any breweries for half a century."
As for the famous "but" ban, The Bloomberg Way does offer some wiggle room: The word can be used when "the intent is to signal an about-face." Otherwise, clauses that start with "although," "but," "despite" or "however" will "confuse more than clarify" by connecting dissimilar ideas and taking readers in two different directions. Winkler advises writers to "focus on the part of the sentence to emphasize rather than put it in opposition to another point."
For example, "Instead of saying 'You disappoint me, but I'll always love you,' the Bloomberg Way says: 'You disappoint me, and I'll always love you,'" Winkler writes. "The difference in meaning is profound. Reporting should never be restrained by unnecessary qualification and qualification should never be ambiguous."
Writing in the Bloomberg Way is hard. It doesn't feel natural. After all, most people use the word "but." But Winkler's "but" rule is a profound lesson not just in writing but thinking.
Er, scratch that.
Avoiding the word "but" sharpens a writer's focus. So does writing without modifiers, avoiding labels and characterizations, and coming up with a headline before starting to write. Imagine how The Bloomberg Way could be applied to situations beyond the newsroom. How would public discourse change if it were purged of labels and characterizations? How many thousands of conferences, emails, speeches and proposals would be improved -- even eliminated, for that matter -- if they were boiled down to a nine-word headline first? And how differently might we think and communicate -- and maybe even feel -- if we all could stop using the word "but"?