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Dec. 10, 2019, 3:40 p.m.

Bloomberg Media is buying CityLab from The Atlantic (and some of its fans are nervous)

“These folks at CityLab have built a terrific site and terrific audience, not only committed to understanding what’s coming but covering the intersection of innovation.”

Bloomberg Media doesn’t do acquisitions often; its last one in consumer media was probably BusinessWeek for a couple of nickels 10 years ago. The company has its own unique culture — derived from long hours, the demands of the terminal, and each iteration of “The Bloomberg Way” — and acquisitions always come with the risk of the host rejecting its implant, or vice versa.

But the company that doesn’t like to buy ran into a company that’s eager to sell, and the result is this:

Another media acquisition is afoot. Bloomberg Media intends to purchase CityLab, a brand from The Atlantic that was created in 2011 as a standalone website devoted to covering cities and how they are innovating for the future.

The transaction is expected to close by the end of the year, and financial terms of the arrangement were not made public. It’s also the first acquisition the publisher has made since it acquired BusinessWeek in 2009 from McGraw-Hill for a reported $5 million. [Not technically true. —Ed.] The CityLab brand will have access to Bloomberg Media’s footprint, which has arms in digital, TV, radio and print.

“What’s really exciting about the addition to CityLab to our portfolio is that it can be introduced into that model as a new multi-platform, global sub-brand that is super-serving a niche that we care about a lot, that we think is very valuable,” Justin B. Smith, CEO of Bloomberg Media, told Adweek.

Because American media is roughly two Acela quiet cars in size, it’s worth noting that Bloomberg’s Smith was president of Atlantic Media from 2009 to 2013 — a period that includes the launch of CityLab (then known as The Atlantic Cities) in 2011.

(If you were looking to CityLab for deep investigations into Michael Bloomberg’s urban policy as New York City mayor, I’m sorry to say you’re now likely to be disappointed.)

CityLab’s availability was no doubt of a piece with the ongoing shifts in The Atlantic’s ownership. David Bradley, its owner since 1999 and overseer of a remarkable period of growth, announced two years ago that he had sold majority control of The Atlantic to Emerson Collective, the investment vehicle of Laurene Powell Jobs, with the expectation that Emerson would take total ownership within a few years. Just last month, Bradley announced he would soon be stepping away from management duties. As part of the process of stepping back, Bradley and his Atlantic Media have been selling off its other assets for some time now; besides the flagship magazine, its Watergate offices, the business site Quartz, and now CityLab have all found new owners. (I suspect National Journal will have its turn soon — at least well before the next administration takes office.)

Bloomberg says CityLab will continue to run as a standalone site, separate from its new mothership:

Bloomberg Media execs see this acquisition as a way to deepen the publisher’s coverage of “forward-thinking” technologies that complement brands the outlet has already established, including Prognosis (tackling the future of healthcare), Hyperdrive (transportation) and Checkout (retail).

“We have a long history of being solutions and actions focused,” said Jed Sandberg, senior executive editor of Bloomberg Digital. “These folks at CityLab have built a terrific site and terrific audience, not only committed to understanding what’s coming but covering the intersection of innovation.”

I read quite a lot of Bloomberg content and I confess this is the first I’ve ever heard of Prognosis, Hyperdrive, or Checkout, so either I should get out more or having an established niche site like CityLab join their number isn’t a bad idea.

CityLab has a comparatively small but unusually passionate group of fans (all of whom either take public transportation or bike to work) and some of them seem nervous about the new ownership. Perhaps that’s a sign of the public hit Bloomberg the news company has taken because of Bloomberg the candidate, who says the former can’t cover the latter credibly.

Besides being the former mayor of the largest city in America, Bloomberg is still very much engaged in a variety of urban issues through Bloomberg Philanthropies. Like, say, its American Cities Initiative, which CityLab has covered. (And…also been a part of. CityLab’s event series for the past seven years has been a co-production with Bloomberg Philanthopies. CityLab’s written quite a few stories about Bloomberg, though most date to his mayoral days.) And while Bloomberg’s core audience in the financial industry is certainly interested in coverage of cities, it might not have the same priorities or interests at heart as CityLab’s biggest fans.

All that said: Bloomberg Media does a ton of great work, its editorial strategy aligns well with high-quality coverage of cities, and its steady terminal revenue has left it under approximately 3 percent of the financial pressure most American news organizations face. Trust me, CityLab fans: You could do a lot worse.

Photo of Mayor Michael Bloomberg November 2, 2009 by Azi Paybarah used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2019, 3:40 p.m.
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