Bloomberg’s Davos and Some Disney Dish

Mike Bloomberg and Justin Smith
Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Dylan Byers
November 12, 2021

“We’re in the middle of a once-in-a-many-generation transition in the world order,” Justin Smith, the chief executive of Bloomberg Media, told me earlier this week. Smith, who joined Bloomberg nearly a decade ago with the general mandate to elevate its once-somnolent media business from a shiny, if unprofitable, shingle on its extraordinary, money-minting data terminal empire to something worthy of its founder’s namesake, has always been a lofty thinker. In his previous stops on the media carousel, he co-founded a series of consumer-facing Internet properties during Web 1.0; then he helped usher Quartz into the world, which simultaneously revived The Atlantic’s reputation in the process. When he arrived at Bloomberg, he took a series of bold swings, hiring big names such as Josh Topolsky, John Heilemann, and a pre-scandal Mark Halperin to make the brand younger and more fashionable. 

Some of these strategies worked, others didn’t, but over time Smith proved correct that media was indeed at an inflection point, and he used his enviable resources to build a powerful subscription business, events cottage industry, and short-form video product. Ten years ago, when A-list executives like Andy Lack and Norm Pearlstine were trying to pivot Bloomberg Media, no one would have ever thought it could become what it is today: Not just massively influential, sure, but also cool and sophisticated.

Smith’s latest play represents the current size and scope of Bloomberg’s ambitions. In the next few days, some 450 C.E.O.s, ministers, and heads of state from around the world—including some you’ve heard of (Bill Gates, David Solomon, Tony Blair, etc.)—will make their way to Singapore for the fourth annual Bloomberg New Economy Forum, a very exclusive and self-serious three-day affair that has become a source of fascination for me, not because of what it is, but because of what it aspires to be: the Davos of the 21st Century.

Indeed, that is Smith’s intention, with the capital and blessing of his boss, and it is the focus of his global-world-order philosophizing. Davos is too West-centric, he told me, a product of the “American-led global, liberal, democratic, capitalist order” that, in Smith’s view, ended either in 2008, with the financial crisis, or in 2016, with the election of Donald Trump. The New Economy Forum puts China squarely at the center of the story, and highlights leaders from around the world—Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America—who are “not on the ‘Davos track.’” Andrew Browne, the editorial director of the forum, put it to me more directly: “Let’s be honest, not all emerging economies feel comfortable walking around Davos. The geography and conversation can feel rather distant and alien. They come to see us because they know they can have real conversations.”

The “new Davos” rhetoric has been a key part of the N.E.F. pitch since its inception. “Davos has been around for a long time: it is a very big conference and it is focused on lots of world problems,” Mike Bloomberg told the FT in 2018. “This conference is focused on the world and China as an emerging power and how we all work together.” Bloomberg also took a not-so-subtle shot at Davos’ reputation as a bloated junket for elite scensters, describing his own event as “not a party-thing where you go and have dinner with everybody and hobnob with movie stars. This is a serious thing where we hope to get everybody to contribute.”

Whether the New Economy Forum can supplant Davos as the ur-event of the global elite is anyone’s guess. (Davos, which now has at least 3,000 delegates annually, and is very much a party, also started as a much more self-serious policy event with 450 delegates in the early 70s.) What fascinates me, though, is the ambition, and who’s behind it. For a time I wondered if it was Mike Bloomberg, given his fascination with China, limitless resources, and unyielding desire to be at the center of the conversation. If you can’t be President of the United States, why not be, well, the thing he is far more qualified for: the president of the global elite?

But Bloomberg isn’t really a big conference guy, and he hardly needs a forum to exert his influence, several sources in his orbit pointed out. And, as one journalist who has covered Bloomberg closely in recent years put it, he can probably get anyone except the Pope on the phone within 15 minutes. Those pointed remarks about Davos to the FT? “I believe I remember someone else putting him up to that,” a source close to him said. “That was someone else’s script.” (Bloomberg was not available for an interview).

It was likely Smith’s script, and what I’ve learned in recent days is that the New Economy Forum really has a lot more to do with his own ambitions and the ambitions of Bloomberg Media than Bloomberg, himself. As Smith put it, the N.E.F., which is well-sponsored, is “a very small thing in context of the overall company. But having said that, it’s one of these projects where if we stick to the purpose, stick to the mission… more and more commercial opportunities will grow along the building of the platform.”

It’s a credit to Smith that he’s put himself in a position to make a run at Davos. Six years ago he was very much on the ropes at Bloomberg. Misfires at re-organizing Bloomberg Media’s political coverage around the Game Change guys infuriated colleagues in Washington; some wondered why he licensed their expensive TV show to MSNBC, a competitor; Bloomberg Tech never took off, either. And two years later, a post-City Hall Mike Bloomberg returned to the helm of Bloomberg LP, took one look at the messy state of Bloomberg Media, and appointed The Economist‘s John Micklethwait to take over as editor-in-chief, significantly curtailing Smith’s purview to matters of business and strategy, subscriptions and ad sales.

Far from chafing at the check on his power, Smith has instead made the most of his opportunity. The last time you read about him was in The New York Times Style section. He was throwing “the first good D.C. media party of the summer” at his “stately Kalorama home,” and, quite unexpectedly, dating Uma Thurman. The next time you read about him, it may be about his role creating the 21st Century Davos. Or not. But, like I said, I’m fascinated by the ambition.

Disney’s Sophomore Slump

Another source of fascination for me this week is the fate of Disney+ under Bob Chapek. There was, after all, plenty of consternation and finger-pointing on Wednesday after Disney announced its disappointing fourth quarter subscription growth, causing Disney stock to tank 7 percent, its worst trading session in a year. As Puck’s newest contributor, the streaming data analyst Julia Alexander wrote last night, the big question among Disney observers these days is, “How can Disney+ continue growing beyond the families who subscribe for kids… and the Star Wars or Marvel diehards…?” The solution, per Julia: add more general entertainment that “would greatly expand what subscribers and potential customers think Disney+ is offering, and widen the customer base that Disney+ can attract.”

I have nothing to add to Julia’s very smart analysis beyond noting that this is not merely a question among Disney observers; it is the question among Disney insiders. Current and former executives tell me there is a heated debate in Burbank over whether to stick to core family-friendly Disney content or widen the aperture to bring in more subscriptions.

Bob Iger “insisted on sticking to the narrow definition,” one of those sources told me. Chapek “intends to expand it,” but the anxiety among some insiders is that the famously data-driven Chapek lacks the creative vision to do it the right way. “Notice that Netflix spends insane amounts and makes a ton of crap,” the source said. “A handful of phenom hits in a giant pile of crud.” Is that what Disney wants for Disney+?

What I’m Reading

A Former Facebook VP Thinks Investing in Humans Is the Future of VC: She gets $1.7 million. Sam Lessin’s venture firm gets 5 percent of her creator earnings for 30 years. “it’s def not indentured servitude,” he says. By Vice’s Maxwell Strachan.

Amazon’s Spinmasters: Behind the Internet Giant’s Battle With the Press: There was a time when Jeff Bezos barely cared about public relations. But after years of increasingly hostile media coverage and growing public scrutiny of Amazon, the company has gone on the offensive against journalists. It even measures its P.R. team on the corrections they get on stories. By The Information’s Paris Martineau.

Now TV Wants Nielsen to Measure Up: After years of complaints, NBCUniversal and its peers are looking for other ways to count viewers, with or without the ratings giant. By NYT’s Tiffany Hsu.

What Bosses Really Think About the Future of the Office: C.E.O.s are eager for employees to return—and afraid of alienating those who have grown accustomed to working from home. By NYT’s David Gelles.