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(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File) Reports that the financial data and news company Bloomberg LP tapped into clients' private messages highlight the uncertain ethical landscape facing media companies, some of which are determined to bypass journalistic models that depended on well-defined relationships with readers and advertisers.
In Bloomberg uproar, ethics flags for new media
Journalism » As news business is reconfigured around technology, what happens to the old rules?
First Published May 19 2013 12:41 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:31 pm

New York • Launching his namesake company’s news division in the 1990s, Michael Bloomberg largely rejected long-held rules of the journalism trade that insist on keeping thick firewalls between reporters and the profit-making workings of their companies.

Now, a byproduct of Bloomberg’s widely admired and novel business model has ensnared his company in a problem of its own making. But the uproar — revolving around specialized computer terminals unknown to most news consumers, and the reporters who tapped into data showing how high-powered Wall Street customers were using them — is potentially about much more than Bloomberg the company.

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Instead, experts say, it highlights the uncertain and rapidly changing ethical landscape facing companies that, like Bloomberg, are reinventing the news business. And it raises key questions for people who watch the media, most notably this one: As the news business gets reconfigured around advances in technology, what does that mean for the old rules and the people who follow them?

Such tensions are evident in the way Michael Bloomberg has laid out his company’s ethos. "Most news organizations never connect reporters and commerce. At Bloomberg, they’re as close to seamless as it can get," the billionaire entrepreneur wrote in his 1997 autobiography, penned with the "invaluable help" of the news division’s founding editor-in-chief.

That meant, wrote Bloomberg, who went on to become New York City’s mayor, that a key part of his reporters’ jobs was to keep tabs on what customers wanted and needed in order to provide it.

In practice, it has become clear that meant giving Bloomberg journalists access to data about individual customers’ terminal usage, a practice that progressed from mere service-mindedness to keeping tabs on clients’ habits for reporting purposes.

Easier to snoop • Bloomberg LP, which started as a provider of sophisticated financial data to bond traders and only later expanded to include a journalistic enterprise, has few direct parallels in media. But it echoes many new ventures in its determination to bypass old journalistic models that depended on well-defined — some would say outdated — relationships with readers and advertisers, to forge new kinds of ties with new types of audiences.

"Many more journalism companies will face the type of competing values that the journalists at Bloomberg faced because, as the economic model for journalism changes, more companies, if they’re successful, are going to look like Bloomberg," said Kelly McBride, who teaches journalism ethics at The Poynter Institute.

Today’s technology gives many types of news organizations access to information about consumers’ preferences for certain types of content, without clearly settled understandings of how that information should be used. Technology also has made it easier for reporters, and everybody else, to snoop.

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"In a digital world in which everything online at some level, if you have the expertise, is probably available, this is simply reality," said Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

At the same time, new types of journalism ventures are relying on different constituencies, often without clear rules for engagement, McBride said. Non-profit news organizations rely on donors, rather than advertisers. Others rely on advertisers who pay to sponsor content.

All together, the uncertainties of those new relationships will force media organizations to wrestle with tough questions, McBride says.

"These types of breaches are about your loyalty to an individual or organization that you’ve created a relationship with over something other than journalism."

Working on the sly • In an open letter published last week on Bloomberg’s website, Matthew Winkler, who was the founding editor-in-chief of the company’s news division and remains at its helm, alluded to those allegiances to explain the lapses.

"Why did reporters have access to this (customer data) in the first place? The recent complaints go to practices that are almost as old as Bloomberg News," Winkler wrote. "Understanding how our clients used the terminal was more important then."

But Winkler said the practice was clearly a mistake.

"Our client is right. Our reporters should not have access to any data considered proprietary. I am sorry they did. The error is inexcusable," he wrote.

Thus far, the Bloomberg eruption has been defined by the arcane —reporters punching keys to track the minutiae of customer behavior that may have been newsworthy, but appears to have been anything but scandalous.

In his letter, Winkler said that Bloomberg journalists had been able to see individual clients’ terminal log-in histories and categories of functions those customers used. Until last month, when the company said it restricted reporters’ access to the information, they could see individual users’ most frequently used commands over the past week, as well as details of customer inquiries to the company help desk.

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