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Is Bloomberg Government the Next Washington Media Death Star?
Comments () | Published April 4, 2011

All that information is extraordinarily hard to gather, largely because the government doesn’t store it in one place. But when it’s collected, and explained by journalists, the data has the potential to give businesses an inside track on winning government deals. It shows where spending trends are heading and thus where the next business opportunity lies. For years, current and prospective contractors have been buying these figures from a handful of analysis firms. Last February, Bloomberg bought one of them.

Eagle Eye Publishers, a small business in Fairfax, specialized in compiling government-wide procurement figures into rank-ordered lists of the top spenders of federal money as well as the companies winning contracts. Eagle Eye used to sell those lists to Government Executive, another David Bradley–owned publication. Now Eagle Eye’s founder, Paul Murphy, sits in the BGov newsroom, helping its reporters crank out original stories and analysis.

Buying Eagle Eye was a natural extension of Bloomberg’s main source of revenue, the electronic terminal, which is ubiquitous in the financial sector. The implications aren’t lost on Washington’s top editors. “I think Bloomberg is going to come in and eat everyone’s lunch on data,” says Jim VandeHei, executive editor and cofounder of Politico.

But to do that, BGov will have to get its house in order. Several editorial staffers have complained that the newsroom is poorly organized and that Bloomberg hasn’t done enough to publicize its new operation in Washington or to promote the online publication among its existing subscribers.

According to multiple internal documents, BGov’s recent traffic has been anemic. Few people appear to be reading the site, and only a handful of stories generate double-digit page views. Some reporters complain that their stories aren’t being widely read because they stay locked behind a “pay wall,” making it difficult to generate leads and cultivate sources and leading some staffers to doubt whether BGov has the momentum to get off the ground. These reporters say stories are rarely, if ever, shared with Bloomberg’s wider audience of business readers and that even exclusive news stories aren’t published on the company’s public Web site, which anyone can access.

There’s a creeping and uneasy feeling among some employees that their bosses don’t understand the potential of the resources they have. Employees also question whether Bloomberg executives in New York understand how to pitch BGov to a business audience, whether in Washington or elsewhere. This type of anxiety is to be expected with any start-up, but BGov runs the risk that its substantial buzz will quickly give way to doubt.

Still, the opportunities for BGov—or any new publication—to succeed are considerable. “The marketplace is fluid and is changing dramatically,” says Justin Smith, president of Atlantic Media Company, who oversaw a relaunch of National Journal’s magazine, Web site, and daily publications to focus them more on daily news and analysis. “But this is a town full of numerous markets, not just one.”

Yet BGov’s commitment has been outsize compared with National Journal’s rebranding in fall 2010 as a more Web-focused operation or with Politico’s new pay service, Politico Pro, which launched in February. Bloomberg is treating the minutiae of government as journalism’s next frontier, reportedly investing $100 million to hire staff, acquire resources such as Eagle Eye, and mount a national sales strategy. Company executives won’t confirm that number, but they don’t dispute it.

So far, BGov has kept a low public profile. Editors don’t trumpet new hires in press releases. Employees are forbidden to talk about company business with outside reporters. Even BGov’s top editors and executives won’t sit for an interview without a company spokesperson in the room, and all meetings are conducted in glass offices so passersby can see.

But the silence is at odds with the sound of other journalists bolting from their newsrooms to BGov’s. They’re drawn by higher salaries (double what they were making, according to some accounts), generous health-care benefits, the prospect of year-end bonuses totaling half an annual salary, and the potential to be in on the ground floor of the next big media start-up. By the end of this year, BGov intends to hire more than 150 new reporters, editors, and subject-matter experts in its coverage areas. In an unusual setup, the experts, many of whom hold PhDs, serve as in-house analysts for the journalists. Ordinarily, a reporter might spend hours trying to track down the perfect source for an article. At BGov, they’re already in the office. And when they’re not helping with news, the analysts write what editors call “white papers,” detailed descriptions of how government policy is being implemented.

BGov’s hiring goal of 150 staffers is a big number by any measure, but especially at a time when the model of charging money for news has been written off in many quarters. At the beginning of this year, the newsroom staff already stood at 115. And many of the reporters and editors have come from one company—CQ. Some were lured away; others are refugees of a CQ layoff in September 2009, in which 44 employees lost their jobs.

Mike Riley, BGov’s managing editor, is a CQ veteran who lost his job as editor and senior vice president there when the company merged with Roll Call. Fortunately for Riley, his experience running a high-priced subscription business was in demand when he got the boot. After leaving CQ, he began talking with Bloomberg about its new Washington operation; Riley’s consulting work with Bloomberg was unpaid. The top editors at Politico also hired him to consult on how they might start a subscription business. According to Riley, he didn’t share information about either company with the other. A subscription to Politico Pro, which ended up launching more than a year behind BGov, starts around $2,500 a year for one coverage area and $1,000 for each additional area.

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