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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

There's hope for journalism in the digital age, says Bloomberg's co-founder

The co-founder of Bloomberg News says President Trump's first year in office has been a challenging one for media organisations worldwide

Former editor in chief of Bloomberg News Matt Winkler doesn't believe the digital age has destroyed journalism, and says it's still a compelling time to be a journalist. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Former editor in chief of Bloomberg News Matt Winkler doesn't believe the digital age has destroyed journalism, and says it's still a compelling time to be a journalist. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Former Wall Street Journal chief Matthew Winkler co-founded Bloomberg News in 1990 with the American businessman and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. He served as editor-in-chief for almost 25 years, establishing a real-time digital news operation off the back of Bloomberg’s data-driven professional services for financial analysts and investors.

During his tenure, Mr Winkler wrote The Bloomberg Way, a style guide for reporters and editors that includes doctrines such as “The Five Fs” – the concept that news stories should be First, Factual, Fastest, Final and take Future events into account. In 2014, Mr Winkler was replaced by former editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, to become editor-in-chief emeritus overseeing editorial policy and educational initiatives.

During a visit to Dubai this week to run a journalism training programme for Saudi students, he talked to The National about the early days of Bloomberg News, the business of news publishing in a digital era, and the challenges the US media face while covering president Donald Trump.

What challenges did you face when setting up Bloomberg News?

The idea of data driving news is in some ways a very old-fashioned idea because what is news without facts, and therefore data? The challenge was obvious, in that aside from my own experience Bloomberg had no history of news – no pedigree, no lineage, no tradition, none of the things that would make building a news organisation from scratch easy. To give you an idea of the barriers we faced, in the earliest days of Bloomberg News in New York, our reporters would be making calls, as reporters are supposed to do, to people in the market, and at the time there was a stationery store on Wall Street and traders and investors would repeatedly tell our reporters to stop calling because these firms did not need any more stationery from “Blumberg”.

Another name but very similar. So it was a bit frustrating. But persistence is everything. And you’re only as good as your story. So if your stories are credible, then over time [it works].

How long did it take you to write The Bloomberg Way?

We were starting with no tradition and we agreed we wanted to be the best. Mike Bloomberg, though, would be the first person to say “I don’t know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’”, so it was something I had to figure out. I felt it was essential we had not just a code of conduct, but a manual that would guide us in everything that we did and communicate to people what we were, to be transparent and accessible. The manual that became The Bloomberg Way almost overnight was a collection of notes written to staff from the time we published our first story on June 14, 1990, onwards, about everything we did: from style, editing, reporting, to the way we conducted ourselves in interviews, the way we handled attribution, corrections, complaints, things like that. By the end of our first year it was about 25 pages long; by the time we were five years old it was a substantial book of 100 pages and we updated it consistently and still do. The Five Fs was an attempt to define what digital news is at a time before people appreciated what digital means.

Has the digital age destroyed journalism?

No. Without doubt there’s a clash of information and misinformation. People can say anything – and they do – and it travels instantly, everywhere, and is potentially archived forever. At the same time, the access to facts is greater than ever, so the opportunity for journalists to insert context and perspective into reporting is greater than ever, and it’s exciting. But we’re up against the old adage mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie travels halfway round the world before the truth laces up its shoes”, and that’s something we’ll always be wrestling with. But people who aspire to practise journalism at its best have the opportunity to do so, and that’s what I try and convey to the aspiring bright lights of our profession. I insist it’s an incredible time to be a journalist.

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What do you make of Donald Trump’s first year in office?

To be kind – and I’m not sure I should be, he’s a serial fabricator and an enemy of the truth – if there’s one constant in his behaviour it’s that he’s incapable of telling the truth, and worse than that, he goes out of his way to say things that aren’t true. That’s very dangerous to say the least, and puts all of us in harm’s way because falsehood is as bad as it gets and unfortunately that’s where we are. What is a challenge for the [news] profession is that to him it’s about entertainment and while it can be entertaining, news is not, in and of itself, entertainment. News is about the pursuit of surprises, of things that happened, people saying things and doing things. So it’s been a difficult year, challenging and exhausting really, because we’re here to pursue the truth to the best of our abilities and are up against someone who, as I said, is the enemy of the truth.

How well do you think US and other media have covered the Trump presidency so far?

At Bloomberg we follow ­money in all its forms. We follow the people with the most at stake and we follow their stakes. That, to us, is very revealing because those with the most at stake are making the most important decisions, decisions that affect everybody around the world. A lot of news organisations are content to report: “he said, she said, he said” and not provide the context behind it. For example, what does Nafta [the North American Free Trade Agreement] mean, [beyond] “it’s a trade agreement”? Nafta actually has enormous significance for Nebraska farmers – something that didn’t really come up much in the election year. We had three candidates and all of them were critical of global trade because it was politically expedient to be so. So the press in covering the election of 2016 really didn’t give Nafta the appropriate context it deserved. Interestingly enough, many of the people who voted for Donald Trump are people who are the biggest beneficiaries of Nafta, or who would be the biggest beneficiaries of TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], which all three candidates were against and Trump has said “that’s the end of it”. Yet America’s biggest farmers would have been the biggest beneficiaries of TPP. They would have been able to sell beef cattle in Japan, for example. But that’s a story that very few news organisations are equipped to cover.

What about media coverage of the UK’s Brexit vote?

It’s the layers of factual information that are so important to frame a subject. The Brexit “Leave” campaign insisted that something like £350 million [Dh1.78 billion] a week of what goes to the EU could be returned to the National Health Service [NHS], and it was a complete fiction. But because so many news organisations had some stipulation that you have to report what people say, that fiction got repeated again and again. Then the day after the vote the people who were in charge of the Leave campaign said “never mind, that wasn’t really true after all”. This was something with enormous economic consequence for people, affecting people’s lives. The public was unfortunately misled and, in too many instances, the media was a megaphone for the deception.

In your new role what are you trying to teach aspiring journalists?

I’m trying to illustrate what makes Bloomberg exceptional in its use of data, especially for subjects where there’s a prevailing assumption and you can show that the facts, when you assemble them, belie the prevailing assumption. That’s a lot of fun. I also try and suggest that precision in language is a vital element of style. Be careful how you use words because what we’re after is accuracy, precision and clarity, above all else, so if the language is careless, if we misuse words repeatedly to a bad effect, it’s not going to help our readers, anybody else, or even us. We want our business to succeed, and our business is about providing the most succinct way of communicating surprises every day, so language is vital to what we do.