When Justin B. Smith was named chief executive officer of Bloomberg Media in 2013, he was fresh off the successful overhaul of The Atlantic. As president of Atlantic Media, Smith was widely credited with transforming one of the country’s oldest magazines from a respectable, if stodgy, publication into a robust multiplatform media brand for the 21st century, with a live events business and new digital properties such as Quartz that won praise for quality, design and speed.
Smith, the son of the president of the American University of Paris, grew up in France and got his start at the International Herald-Tribune, building out the newspaper’s conference business. From there, he oversaw corporate strategy for The Economist, eventually landing in New York, where he spearheaded the American launch of Felix Dennis’ The Week before heading to The Atlantic in 2007.
Bloomberg Media faced different challenges from the The Atlantic. The financial heart of Bloomberg LP – which was founded in 1981 by the then-future former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg — is the Bloomberg terminal, which has been a pricy must-have information hub for the financial world. Bloomberg Media began as a supplement to that core business, providing business news and analysis between trades.
The business subsequently expanded to include print such as Businessweek, a magazine with quirky covers, plentiful graphics and long-form trend stories, as well as Bloomberg Pursuits, a luxury lifestyle title meant to help the well-off finance guy figure out how to spend all that money during his off hours. But print is not without challenges: Bloomberg Pursuits recently went digital only. Likewise, Bloomberg TV and Bloomberg Radio have veered between consumer-facing politics shows and the target audience of terminal subscribers.
On a rainy day at Bloomberg’s glass-enclosed headquarters across the street from Bloomingdale’s, Smith, age 47, looked business casual. The top few buttons of his ever-so-slightly rumpled checkered shirt were undone and instead of a tie, he wore his corporate badge bearing his name and picture. If his floppy blond hair was slightly floppier, he would pass for an editor or professor. As it is, Smith looks like what he is: the ceo of a media company who speaks of the perils of platforms, the challenge for publishers, and Bloomberg’s global ambitions, but who is self-aware enough to note when his publisher speak veers into buzzwords.
WWD: You recently published a survival guide for publishers where you said that the digital revolution just started. What did you mean by that?
Justin Smith: Obviously, the digital revolution began in earnest 25 years ago. But if you broaden the aperture and broaden your perspective on time and space, it is still very early days in this significant transformation of media. I think it’s important not to forget that fact, because the more aware you are of that reality and the broader perspective that things are, relatively speaking, in their early phases, the more you can compel yourself to innovate, to shape, to believe that the future can be transformed by your ideas and strategies.
WWD: And what does that mean for Bloomberg?
J.S.: For Bloomberg, it means what it means for a lot of media companies in the sense that there’s a long future ahead. While there are new players that have become extremely strong and powerful, in particular the tech platforms, and while that reality is absolutely one we confront today, the truth is that publishers should be imagining a future where that reality will be fluid and changing. That’s at the core of our mission at Bloomberg. I wrote this survival guide because I thought it should be the core of every publisher’s mission.
WWD: In November, you announced a strategy shift, especially at Businessweek. Where are you in that and how is that progressing?
J.S: The last couple of years have been really phenomenal here because we’ve succeeded in making Bloomberg Media a majority digital company in terms of audience and revenue. While digital is the tip of our spear and the broadest global platform in terms of audience, we see the relationship between digital and a strong print brand like Businessweek. And then you layer on top of that global television, global radio/digital audio and a live events experiential platform, and what you have is five dimensions that are all, in a complementary way, surrounding the global target audience of business decision makers. And that’s a really unique position to occupy and a very distinctive market position relative to our competitors. So that’s what we are leaning into — a digitally led, global multiplatform surround-sound strategy of the business and financial audience.
WWD: What is your relationship with social media platforms?
J.S.: We are tough and picky about the platforms we choose to work with. We are very conscious of not outsourcing our core publishing and media business to the platforms. We are not especially keen on training consumers to consume our content on other platforms. We are definitely not keen on giving platforms control over our advertising relationships and commercial monetization opportunities. We are not keen on them owning all of our data and knowing more about our customers than we do. So there are a lot of areas of concern. Having said that, we’re not foolish in thinking that they’re not incredibly important in this emerging ecosystem. So our partnerships with platforms have taken into consideration that skepticism. But in a selective and strategic way, we’ve entered into platform relationships that make sense for us, and Twitter is a good example of that.
WWD: Why have you been enthusiastic about partnering with Twitter?
J.S.: It’s very refreshing to work with a partner like Twitter, who is committed to an equable relationship with a publisher. When Twitter began to experiment with live video and other video on its platform about six months ago, we were fortunate to be chosen as one of their initial partners. We now stream three of our television shows on Twitter. We’re growing our audiences, they are growing their engagement and attention, we’re making money, they are making money. It’s a great start and we look forward to doing a lot more with them.
WWD: Do you use Twitter yourself?
J.S.: I am a huge personal consumer of Twitter and user of Twitter. I don’t tweet as much personally as I actually consume it, but I am a big believer that by many metrics, Twitter is the largest general news company in the world. With 150 million daily unique users, name one news media company that has more consumers going to it every day seeking out news. I’ve asked people that question, and I pretty much just get blank stares.
WWD: Do you think that other publishers should bring more skepticism to partnering with tech platforms like Facebook?
J.S.: We are very fortunate at Bloomberg to have a business model, which is one of a kind. It’s a business model that is vertically integrated with our core terminal business, so the economic value of our media assets exist beyond the media model by itself. This gives us more flexibility and more runway to be able to take our time choosing the right partnerships. I think certainly what we’ve seen in the last few years is a rush to the platforms — you could even say it’s been a mad rush to the platforms. And now the story is about how publishers, including The New York Times, are aggressively pulling back from Facebook Instant Articles, which of course was the flavor of the month about a year ago. I wouldn’t say it’s a mad withdrawal, but now you’re seeing a lot more caution and a lot more skepticism around the very basic question: What is an equitable commercial relationship given the amount of engagement and attention to content that media companies produce and that the platforms monetize, first and foremost, for themselves?
WWD: Does the Bloomberg terminal insulate Bloomberg from industry pressure?
J.S.: We are not insulated from industry pressure in the sense that we are dealing with the same technology disruption around the consumption of media, the same advertising disruption around the delivery and nature of advertising. We are living in the same world as everybody else. But where our terminal business presents us with a competitive advantage is that a lot of the logic and purpose of Bloomberg Media is based around the value that it drives to the terminal business. And that’s our primary focus, but alongside that focus, of course, are the ambitions around building a great media company. But because of the foundation that our terminal and other core businesses offer, we’ve been buffered a little bit from a lot of the high-speed winds of change and disruption.
WWD: We are living in extremely politically polarized times. Has this affected the way that you cover politics?
J.S.: I think that this climate presents a real opportunity for Bloomberg on a couple of different levels. Obviously, the new administration is a business administration, run by a businessman, and that provides us a unique opportunity to interpret and analyze the administration from a business perspective. And secondly, at the core of all business and financial journalism is independent, verifiable, impartial, unbiased data. Much of our journalism actually is born from interpretation of data. That also gives us a way into the story that is differentiated and really important, and they are especially valuable to the audience we serve. Bloomberg Media is not targeting everyone on the planet. We are targeting global business decision-makers and leaders. And data-driven, high-quality, unbiased journalism about everything, including politics, is what sells in our target market.
WWD: What do you think about “fake news?”
J.S.: Listen, the antithesis of fake news is data-driven journalism. And that’s a good thing for Bloomberg.
WWD: What challenges do you face with print media?
J.S.: We believe strongly in the future of print as part of our multiplatform approach. Businessweek obviously is a backbone of our multiplatform strategy. We are relaunching that brand in the second quarter, so that will happen in the coming months. We decided to turn Pursuits into a digital-only brand last year.
WWD: Why did you decide that?
J.S.: Really it was because of the opportunity we saw. There are not an insignificant number of print luxury magazines out there. Luxury advertising had been seen as the safe harbor for print for all the arguments you hear about — the tactile nature of the ads and the products. But over the past year, that safe harbor status feels like it went away. And luxury advertisers have been a lot more aggressive about transitioning to digital. So rather than playing catch-up in the print luxury space, we decided to become the leader, or a leader, in the digital luxury space.
WWD: How does your TV strategy fit into a broader strategy?
J.S.: Television is a critical platform and one with which we are doing well especially around the world. In the U.S., it is a day-to-day dogfight with CNBC, although I think our content is more focused on institutional than retail. But around the world, I think Bloomberg Television is a leader.
WWD: And about Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s show “With All Due Respect,” which went off the air in December?
J.S.: “With All Due Respect” was a great show. But it was always designed as a show that would last the length of the campaign. We always viewed it as that. It didn’t make sense to take a campaign show and continue it when we have a new administration. But I think you’ll see us over the coming months developing more television, digital video, digital and live event properties focused on politics and power, but looking at it less from a campaign perspective and more from a governance and policy as it relates to a business angle.
WWD: What did you learn at The Atlantic that has been useful at Bloomberg?
J.S.: One of the most powerful lessons at The Atlantic, and also from creating Quartz [Atlantic Media’s stand-alone business site], was the power of brand. That goes to the heart of Bloomberg’s market position and strength. Just like we did at The Atlantic, we took the powerful brand position and boiled it down to the essence of what that brand DNA stood for, and expressed it across digital, across live events, across everything we did with a great amount of care and focus on brand management. Here at Bloomberg, way before I got here, the building of the Bloomberg brand has been one of the marvels of modern business. So all I and my team have done is build on that legacy and lead with the power of this differentiated and trusted brand.
WWD: How involved is Michael Bloomberg and what’s your relationship with him like?
J.S.: Mike Bloomberg returned to the company after I had been here for three months. So I like to joke that I started my job twice. After he returned from his time in public service, he acted as I think one would expect all founders to act. He took the reins, and painted the vision for the future. And he has been an inspiration to work for.
WWD: What’s your media diet?
J.S.: I sort of planned my career around my media diet. I grew up as a young boy and adolescent in Paris and Europe. I was a news junkie as a child, and my favorite newspaper was the International Herald Tribune, which at the time was a venture between The New York Times and The Washington Post. I would just read it obsessively at age eight, and my friends and parents thought I was kind of weird. After a short stint at the State Department after university, I went to work for the main staple of my media diet, the Herald Tribune. And then I started reading The Economist religiously, and went to work at The Economist in Hong Kong and London and New York. I heard about this brilliant, witty British magazine called The Week, and I met the owner, the late Felix Dennis. He asked me to help launch the magazine in America. Then I was asked to lead the turnaround of The Atlantic, which I had been reading the whole time. I joke that literally my idea of a good time on a Friday night was getting The Atlantic, The Week and The Economist and just catching up. And then, of course, Quartz, which is sort of a love child of The Atlantic and The Economist and The International Herald Tribune, has become a very significant source for me. And the whole time I was working on all of that and inventing some of that, Bloomberg stood up there as the shining big brand on the hill, poised to really, in my view, dominate the future of business media. They say that the best thing in life is to sort of marry the thing that you’re best at with the thing that you love the most, so I feel very fortunate that my media diet has dictated my career.
WWD: What about publications you haven’t worked at?
J.S.: I think The New York Times and The Washington Post do amazing work. Obviously, The New Yorker. But Twitter is really a very constant amalgamation of sources in my diet. I tweeted recently that we must be at peak newsletter because I think everyone who is in the news business is trying to figure out how to cut back on the amount of time they spend every morning reading so many different newsletters. There’s probably a business opportunity there.
WWD: A newsletter of newsletters?
WWD: You live in Washington, D.C., and work in New York. How do you make that work?
J.S.: I moved to Washington, D.C., for The Atlantic in 2007. Then when I decided to move to Bloomberg in 2013, my family was ensconced in Washington and going to schools there and I just felt like Washington would be a preferable place from my perspective to raise a family. So I came up with this schedule where Monday morning I come up here and Thursday afternoons I go back to D.C. I always aim to be at home by 6:30 on Thursday for dinner with the family — my better half, Kat, and our four kids. And two cats, one dog, and we had three fish, but one died last week. So that’s breaking news.