News giants battle to stay relevant in the age of instant information


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The Independent Online

You wouldn’t expect the arch-rivals of business news, Reuters and Bloomberg, to see eye to eye on much, but they might have been able to agree on something last week.

When Bloomberg raided The Economist, poaching its editor John Micklethwait to become editor-in-chief, it echoed a similar move made by Thomson Reuters 18 months ago when it appointed The Economist’s chief executive, Andrew Rashbass.

It is not hard to understand why both looked in the same place. The Economist has been fantastically successful in growing its relevance as a weekly newspaper, even in a 24/7 world. It has also been an extraordinary cash machine for the blue-blooded Rothschild, Cadbury and Schroder families, who co-own it with the education group Pearson.

Bloomberg and Reuters face similar challenges. The main sources of their revenue streams, the investment banks, can’t always justify subscribing to both services, especially when financial boom turns to bust. And now they must also contend with Twitter – an admittedly imperfect tool for spreading market-sensitive information – as well as nimbler data providers such as Markit, founded 11 years ago in a barn in St Albans and now worth $4.7bn (£3bn) after it floated on Nasdaq.

Both are trying to figure out how to expand their appeal, as well as their income. At one stage, Reuters ventured into running long-winded articles of the type you might find in Businessweek, now owned by Bloomberg. One of Mr Rashbass’s first acts was to scrap a consumer website that had been in the works for two years.

You have to wish the cerebral Mr Micklethwait luck – and hope that his exit, soon after the first fall in more than a decade for The Economist’s combined digital and print circulation, is just a blip.

Bernie Ecclestone: strapped into the front seat for ever 

Bernie Ecclestone roared off like Lewis Hamilton on pole position at the prospect of Paul Walsh, the former Diageo chief executive, being installed as a hands-on chairman of Formula One’s parent company, Delta Topco.

The veteran motor-racing tycoon isn’t happy, to say the least, that his fellow shareholder in the business, the private equity firm CVC, should think about preparing for life without him. His choice of replacement, in the dim and distant future, would be Sacha Woodward-Hill, his long-serving chief legal officer.

There is a certain irony about the F1 circus that a seasoned driver such as Jenson Button, 34, had to sweat before McLaren confirmed it would retain him next season, while the sport’s overlord, 84, drives on serenely.

Mr Walsh is being proposed as a successor to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Nestlé chairman, whom I interviewed in April. When talk strayed from KitKats to F1, he insisted that none of the investors canvassed by the company over a potential stock market flotation had raised Mr Ecclestone’s age as an issue. The biggest concern then was that the boss was in limbo because of a long-running German bribery case, settled in the summer with the offer to pay £60m.

With board seats at the beauty group L’Oréal, oil giant ExxonMobil and investment bank Credit Suisse, Mr Brabeck-Letmathe, 69, is a good advert for veteran bosses. Even when he had to takes things a little easier during treatment for a “curable illness”, he used the downtime that came with instructions to board fewer long-haul flights by learning how to fly a helicopter. He also sprang to the defence of Mr Ecclestone, likening him to Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch, to whom investors have flocked over the years.

The big question for CVC is not how it effects a management handover at F1, but can it effect an exit? Cable group Liberty and Mr Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox have circled F1, which retains plenty of trackside razzmatazz and global appeal. It was once described to me as having been one of the most lucrative private-equity investments in Europe. But that doesn’t mean the CVC chief Donald Mackenzie wants to keep hold of it for ever. Will Mr Ecclestone see him out too?

If supermarkets can cut fuel costs, why not the big six?  

At this time of year, there are e-cards aplenty filling up most inboxes. But it feels like another sort of message is not far behind.

I won’t be the only journalist receiving festive greetings, in the form of press releases from supermarkets, trumpeting the falling price of fuel. Clearly the tumbling cost of Brent crude, down by almost 40 per cent in six months to less than $60 a barrel, is a fast-moving story – especially when Opec cuts its demand forecast and Saudi Arabia tries to stare out North American frackers by holding up supply.

Sainsbury’s alone has announced five price cuts – at least according to my email account – in the last two months. Its competitors are keeping pace. Petrol is not the only front on which the supermarket price war is being fought, but given global developments, it is the most visible one.

How interesting to note the direct relationship between wholesale and retail prices here. Would that the big six energy providers reacted anything like as fast on behalf of their customers.

Clearly, there is some forward ordering of wholesale gas. But the Competition and Markets Authority, currently investigating energy prices, might still be able to draw some useful conclusions from a comparison.