One wintry day in early 2009, David Bradley, who owns the DC-based Atlantic Media Company, had lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York with Norman Pearlstine, the former editor of Time who was developing new businesses for the financial-news giant Bloomberg. A few weeks earlier, Bradley’s chief media rival in Washington, Congressional Quarterly, had been put up for sale, and Bradley wondered whether he should buy it.
Bradley’s own company publishes the Atlantic as well as a suite of Beltway-focused publications that command an annual subscription price in the thousands of dollars, chief among them the weekly policy magazine National Journal. Bradley’s operation competed with CQ—as Congressional Quarterly is usually called—for news, readers, and ad dollars. There were plenty of reasons he might want to buy it. CQ’s most prized asset, from a potential buyer’s perspective, was a set of databases that track the step-by-step movements of legislation in Congress and that sell for tens of thousands of dollars a year per subscription.
There were other serious suitors, but Pearlstine was the only one Bradley visited personally. He wanted to know if Bloomberg was planning to make a bid. “If you are,” Bradley said, “I want to get out of your way.”
It might have seemed that Bradley was beating a hasty and preemptive retreat, and there would be some wisdom in that strategy. He may be a powerful media figure in Washington and the creator of two research companies that have made him a millionaire hundreds of times over, but his fortune pales compared with that of Michael Bloomberg, billionaire founder of the news organization named for him and now New York City mayor.
The prospect of a bidding war was inhibiting—more so was the idea that if Bloomberg was now getting into the legislative-tracking business, then by acquiring CQ, Bradley would be at war with the company in the Washington media market.
Bloomberg, one of the world’s largest media organizations, already had a massive footprint—its Washington newsroom rivaled the Washington Post’s—and its specialty was data. Subscribers to the company’s terminal, an electronic desktop display, pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for up-to-the-second stock quotes, bond prices, and financial news. The terminal made Bloomberg into a media titan—Bradley’s National Journal Group is a boutique by comparison. Still, Bradley had asked Pearlstine the right question. Indeed, Bloomberg was interested in CQ, having decided only days before the company went up for sale that reporting on detailed information about government was a segment of journalism in which Bloomberg could compete.
While on the surface politics seems to be the main business of Washington—the darling of the new-media landscape is the fast and furious Politico—Bloomberg has a different vision: that the real money in Washington journalism is in covering the mechanics of government itself.