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Bloomberg's news venture is good news for those willing to pay

BGov.com has a flock of reporters that will extensively cover Washington politics for a site whose annual subscription fee is $5,700.

May 28, 2011|James Rainey
  • Screen grab from BGov.com.
Screen grab from BGov.com. (BGov.com )

Reporting from Washington

Washington is a city that understands bold gestures, and one media company has been making a lot of them lately. Bloomberg has scooped up a series of journalism's big names, opened a second newsroom to accommodate a doubling of staff and launched a new opinion website, just this week, co-headed by former Clinton administration favorite Jamie Rubin.

The company's boldest move, though, has been the launch of Bloomberg Government, or BGov.com, an aggressive new endeavor but one that's largely hidden from public view because the website is surrounded by a high pay wall. The startup intends to thrive by doing what Washington often does best — cater to the elite.

The media powerhouse built by Michael Bloomberg, now incidentally mayor of New York, already had 150 journalists here. Even before BGov, that made it the biggest news operation in town aside from the Washington Post. The site is already most of the way toward increasing Bloomberg's staff in the capital city by another 150.

Workers for the website include not just veteran reporters but academics and policy analysts. The BGov team intends to be first not only to report minutiae — who got a subcommittee appointment on the Hill — but also to post "deep dives" and analysis that explain government to the business world.

Customers pay $5,700 a year for access to a trove of information — campaign contributions breakdowns, analysis of federal contracting, directories of agency and congressional staff members and a granular parsing of legislation and regulations.

The expansion continues a trend of recent years in Washington: While general-interest news organizations cut reporters in the face of shrinking ad revenue, outlets aimed at a specialty clientele expand. The niche outlets rely almost entirely on subscriptions, not ads.

A whirlwind visit to the dual Bloomberg newsroom this week left me with conflicting symptoms: heart lightened in the presence of so many journalists making a good living, head spinning at the revenue potential, stomach churning at the notion of so much journalistic firepower directed at so few.

To justify a $5,700-a-year Web membership, the specialty business site must deliver something surpassing what it gives to readers of Bloomberg.com, Business Week magazine and to the 420 other outlets worldwide that republish Bloomberg content. The vast bulk of the company's nearly $7 billion in revenue last year came from what remains its core business — the Bloomberg Professional service.

BGov envisions an expansion well beyond the company's core financial clients to congressional staffers, agency officials, lobbyists, trade organizations and corporations around the U.S. — willing to pay for what the company sells as the most thorough look at the business ramifications of the Capitol hustle.

"There is immense value for our clients in this detailed information," said Chris Walters, one of the executives overseeing the startup. With $600 billion in government discretionary spending up for grabs each year, such detailed information makes a modest "information investment" more than worthwhile, Walters said.

Bloomberg is not alone. CQ (or Congressional Quarterly) has long been the brand name in the business of tracking legislation. It has lost some luster (and a flock of reporters to Bloomberg) but is being remade after its purchase by the Economist Group of Britain. Politico.com, the free website and last broadly ambitious startup in D.C., has expanded into the pay space with Politico Pro. The site goes for about $2,500 a year, with an additional $1,000 for each policy area subscribers want to add.

Perhaps the biggest challenge inside the Bloomberg newsrooms has been how widely to disseminate the news that its battalion of reporters rakes in. "The creators of the site want to keep as much information as tightly held as possible," said one journalist, who asked to remain anonymous. "Reporters understand the business reasons for doing that. But they want to get their stuff out there. So there is a tension."

Those who run the site acknowledge that finding the right platform is a constant point of discussion. They stress that they are giving as wide a distribution to material as they can, without making new BGov subscribers feel their premium payments aren't worth the price. In the coming days they may experiment with publishing short teasers from the site where a broader audience can see them.

BGov Executive Editor Susan Goldberg and Managing Editor Mike Riley — she was previously top editor at the San Jose Mercury News and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he led editorial operations at Congressional Quarterly — pointed to stories they have pushed from the paid site into the mainstream.

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