It has been barely three months since three-term New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg returned full-time to his eponymous media and financial data empire—and already he’s making seismic changes.
In a move on Tuesday that came as a shock, if not a surprise, to knowledgeable observers both inside and outside the multi-billion-dollar, privately-owned company, the 72-year-old ex-mayor announced the removal of Matt Winkler, the founding editor of Bloomberg News, the company’s 25-year-old media division, and Winkler’s replacement by British journo John Micklethwait, the longtime editor-in-chief of The Economist.
Although a Bloomberg LP press release went out of its way to cover Winkler with glory and stress his continuing “vital role at Bloomberg, working directly with Mike Bloomberg on strategic initiatives [and] conducting high-profile interviews with global newsmakers,” there’s no doubt that the choice to step down was not Winkler’s.
“Clearly this was Mike Bloomberg’s decision,” said a close observer of the company and its personalities, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Matt Winkler has always said publicly that he serves at the pleasure of the owner, but clearly he was not somebody looking for an exit.”
In a statement released by Bloomberg LP, former deputy mayor Kevin Sheekey, a top lieutenant to the owner, confirmed that interpretation. “Mike’s view has always been to make changes to the business when you're growing and things are going well,” Sheekey said. “He would rather prepare for the future than react to it.”
Neither Mike Bloomberg nor Winkler—whom Bloomberg plucked from The Wall Street Journal, where he was a lowly reporter—were made available to comment beyond the press release, in which Bloomberg is quoted: “Hiring Matt Winkler 25 years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. He has accomplished more than either of us thought possible back then, and thanks to his exceptional leadership, Bloomberg has set a new standard for journalistic excellence. His experience will be enormously beneficial to me as I re-assume full-time leadership of the company.”
Perhaps taking his cue from the Roman Catholic Church, in which the newly-installed pope, Francis, must grapple with the reality that former Pope Benedict XVI is still hanging around, the former mayor has conferred upon Winkler the unusual honorific, “Editor-in-Chief Emeritus”—a title he’ll assume when he leaves his current job in January. By contrast, when Bloomberg, probably the richest man in New York with a reported net worth of more than $32 billion, decided to resume residence at Bloomberg LP, chief executive Dan Doctoroff, another longtime associate, announced that he was leaving the company in order to give its namesake free reign.
It is no small solace, no doubt, that Bloomberg has made both Winkler and Doctoroff millionaires several times over.
Winkler—who is known for his relentless attention to detail, his nitpicking emails to underlings that are often time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, his explosive temper and his preference for bowties--is 59, only seven years older than Micklethwait and well short of retirement age.
As recently as last Thursday—at a gala dinner celebrating the 85th anniversary of Bloomberg-owned Businessweek magazine, featuring a performance by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga—neither Bloomberg nor Winkler gave any indication that a major transformation was afoot.
“It didn’t seem like anything was up,” said a guest who attended the dinner at the Museum of Natural History and chatted with both men. “Mike has got a good poker face.”
The timing of Winkler’s stepping-down also seems designed to distance his departure from an especially traumatic moment in his recent tenure—his much-criticized decision in October 2013 to kill a nearly year-long Bloomberg News investigation detailing various financial entanglements that would have proved extremely embarrassing to the government of China, where Bloomberg LP has major business operations.
Although Winkler vehemently denied that the story had been spiked, The New York Times reported that he defended the decision to kill it in a conference call with reporters and editors by comparing it to the self-censorship of foreign journalists stationed in Nazi Germany in order to avoid being ejected. “If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,” a Bloomberg News employee quoted Winkler to The Times.
“Mike has great loyalty to Winkler, and he’s stood by him through all this stuff over the years, and he was never going to make a move at the time of the China fiasco or anything like that,” said the knowledgeable Bloomberg observer. “And 25 years is a long time to be in the job.”
This person added: “Mike Bloomberg’s in a different place now, coming back to the company, than he was when he left to become mayor. He’s more of a citizen of the world, he’s much more global in his thinking.”
Bloomberg has often declared that The Economist is his favorite publication—and he is said to read it more closely than he does Businessweek, which Bloomberg LP purchased in 2010—so it isn’t a surprise that he’d recruit The Economist’s editor as Winkler’s successor.
“He’s met several times with John Micklethwait socially, and has been very impressed with him,” said the knowledgeable observer, noting that Bloomberg maintains a residence in London while spending more than a billion dollars on construction of new London offices for the 15,500-employee company’s 2,000-plus employees there. “More than 50 percent of Bloomberg’s revenue comes from outside the United States, and John’s philosophy as a global thinker is very much in synch with Mike’s.”
Sheeky echoed that view in his statement: “When Mike left City Hall, he said the only two publications he would read are Bloomberg Businessweek and The Economist. He has enormous respect for John and what he's done.”
In what seems another face-saving measure, to preserve the position of Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith, the company press release said Micklethwait "will work closely with" Smith, a former executive at The Economist Group. "I really look forward to working with John again,” Smith said a statement, adding that “he is a world class journalist and editor with a brilliant grasp of global business and economics.” Micklethwait will report to the ex-mayor.
Left unclear by Tuesday’s developments is the future at the company of former Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel, who oversees the magazine as well as Bloomberg Television and Bloomberg Digital. Tyrangiel, 42, was considered a candidate to succeed Winkler. Also sidelined was Winkler lieutenant Laurie Hays, who was seen as increasingly asserting her authority, apparently in the belief that she was up for a promotion.