BGov, New Bloomberg Site, Pairs Analysts & Reporters for Public Policy Coverage

Bloomberg Government, a new subscription-based news site in Washington, D.C., will take a unique approach to covering the federal government when it launches in January. In hiring subject-matter experts along with journalists, the news organization plans to provide high-end analysis and government reporting — in effect, marrying a news organization with a policy consulting group.

Analysts and journalists will work together to produce a mix of white papers and stories about legislation and regulation related to topics including energy, labor, transportation and trade policy.

“We want to do exclusive enterprise reporting that quantifies the business implications of government action,” Deputy Managing Editor Ken Sands said in a phone interview.

“When I say reporting, I mean traditional narrative storytelling as well as reporting in a more academic, analytic mode,” continued Sands, formerly the executive editor of innovation at Congressional Quarterly. “Some of our subject-matter experts will write academic white papers that are quite rigorous, and it’ll bring a whole different level of expertise to the product.”

BGov’s news team, which is part of Bloomberg News, will produce daily stories but will focus primarily on in-depth projects, according to Sands. The site will supplement that coverage with other Bloomberg reporting and videos from Bloomberg TV to free up employees for longer-term work. Sands said some white papers could take a month to complete, but reporters will generally work on a shorter time frame.

Sands said he believes that BGov’s combination of content from analysts and journalists will distinguish the site from others covering public policy and government. He said he regularly reminds his staff that they must provide content that readers can’t find elsewhere.

“I tell reporters that if you go somewhere and see reporters, you’re probably in the wrong place,” Sands said. “A lot of Washington journalism is pack journalism, and Bloomberg has moved away from that.”

Value of pairing reporters and analysts

BGov plans to hire more than 100 people by the end of the year and will continue hiring in 2011, with slightly more analysts than reporters in the mix, according to Sands and Bloomberg spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. Sands and BGov Managing Editor Mike Riley — former editor and vice president of CQ — have already brought on a couple dozen staffers to prepare for the launch.

Two of the analysts hired thus far have journalism backgrounds, but that will be the exception.

“We want Ph.D. economists, financial analysts with CFAs [certified as chartered financial analysts], and analysts with experience inside each of the industries. It turns out that a few of those people also have some journalism experience,” Sands said. “But that’s not why we hire them.”

Reporters and analysts will focus on some of the same topics, but will have separate editors. The goal is for them to collaborate and inform one another’s work.

“When a reporter is working on a story and needs information,” Sands said, “they can turn to an analyst who is seated nearby and say, ‘Does such a number exist and if so, how can we get it?’ “

He believes that reporters and editors will add perspective and context that decision-makers find “irreplaceable,” and that their work will help balance out the analysts’.

“One of the first questions potential customers ask is, ‘Who are your reporters and editors?’ ” Sands said. “They realize that data, while valuable, is a commodity available elsewhere. They can pay consulting firms for academic white papers.”

How analysts and reporters can work together

Drawing on what he’s observed so far in the newsroom, Sands provided some examples to support the two-pronged approach to coverage.

Take Edward Buckley, BGov’s chief economist, who looked into Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s proposed bill mandating a decrease in the ratio of nurses to patients nationwide.

Buckley, formerly the director of economic policy at Biotechnology Industry Organization, did some statistical analysis to find out how many billions of dollars the bill would cost annually. He shared his findings with reporter Juliann Neher, who wrote a related story.

Sands also pointed to Christopher Flavelle, a BGov health policy analyst and former ProPublica reporter, who searched the 961-page health care law for the phrase “the secretary shall.” He found 532 separate uses of the phrase and determined that more than half of them were tied to hospitals. He collaborated with Frank Bass, a BGov reporter and former AP projects reporter, who wrote a story about the information.

This is the type of data that some people need to better understand the implications of the law, Sands said. “If you’re in the hospital business,” he said, “you would want to know what the opportunities are to influence how Health and Human Services decides on implementation and where the emphasis is.”

Subject-matter experts tend to think analytically about this type of information, Sands said, and they’re accustomed to sifting through thousands of pages of data on a regular basis.

Matt Barry, a BGov senior health policy analyst who has 20 years of experience but no journalism background, is a good example. He read through this year’s health care legislation to see how many business opportunities had been created — and found 98 different ones.

“Having that insight,” Sands said, “isn’t something that would necessarily occur to a reporter.”

Providing data to help users make decisions

Sands stressed that data will also play a significant on BGov, particularly by tracking legislation, regulations and government spending. A product development team is building databases on people, companies and places, broken down by congressional district.

“My experience at CQ is that data is incredibly important to people doing their jobs day to day,” Sands said. “We’re building our site with that same idea in mind, and we want to allow people to manipulate the data any way they need to.”

For now, Sands said, the staff is trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work as it prepares for the launch of the site.

“The initial response from beta users is extremely positive,” Sands said. “If we meet our mission in terms of quality and quantity, the success of the site will be measured by the reaction of the customers and how much of a success it is as a business.”

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