Exclusive: Bloomberg Poaches Star Business Writer Joe Nocera From New York Times

Mike Bloomberg personally intervenes to hire biz legend who'd been exiled to sports

Joe Nocera speaks onstage during the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference at New York Times Building on September 17, 2015 in New York City.
Joe Nocera speaks onstage during the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference at New York Times Building on September 17, 2015 in New York City. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times

Even billionaires covet that which they cannot possess. The Observer has learned that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has long been known to crave the reach and authority of the New York Times for his own media empire, has lured away star New York Times writer Joe Nocera. In an official announcement tomorrow, it will be revealed that Nocera is taking a senior position at Bloomberg Media.

According to a source familiar with the specifics of the deal, Nocera’s gig is wide-ranging and will touch a variety of products within Bloomberg, whose BusinessWeek title just abruptly fired editor in chief Ellen Pollock a year after losing her predecessor, wunderkind Josh Tyrangiel.

“Joe will have a hand in redesigning the magazine, and he will work with Shipley,” said the source, referring to David Shipley, the executive editor of Bloomberg View. Shipley has his own history at the New York Times, having served as deputy editorial page editor and op-ed page editor before being lured to Bloomberg to start “View” as a rival to the vaunted opinion organs at the Times, the Wall Street Journal and the resurgent Washington Post.

Reached at a noisy restaurant on the Upper West Side, Nocera told the Observer, “I am excited to be getting back to what I do best — write about business. Bloomberg is giving me this amazing opportunity, which is to write magazine stories and to write columns. Which is what I do.”

The back story here contains some fascinating interplay.

At the end of 2015, when Andrew Rosenthal was still the emperor of all Times opinion, he suddenly converted Nocera to a sports writer. The move puzzled Times watchers – Nocera is a legend among business writers and his decade at Fortune magazine served as a master class for a generation of business writers who came of age during the frothy period between 1995-2005, when the explosion of the Internet and its subsequent crash created a critical need for journalists who could actually report with skepticism and read a balance sheet.

Eleven years ago, The Times lured Nocera away from Fortune. According to Nocera, “[Bill] Keller hired me in 2005 to write a biz column. I went to oped after 5 years in bizday.” In other words, he was specifically hired to beef up the authority of the Times’ business coverage, first in its business section and then on its editorial page. That made it extra strange when Rosenthal exiled Nocera to the sports page. After Rosenthal was finally forced out at the Times, sources close to Nocera tell the Observer he hoped that new Opinion master James Bennet would restore him to the Editorial page. He didn’t.

Nocera himself was equally puzzled. While reluctant to criticize anyone at the Times, Nocera told the Observer, “I don’t understand to this day why I was taken off the op-ed page. It’s a mystery.”

A source close to Nocera said, “After forty years chronicling business, the decision by the Times to inexplicably put him in sports was very restricting. He tried to make a go of it because he’s a mensch. But there was so much he couldn’t write about and his treatment by Andy Rosenthal … it was a bad year. He’s been at the Times 11 years but he thinks of it as a ‘good ten years.'”

According to a source close to the negotiation and confirmed by another source within Bloomberg, a week ago, Nocera emailed Mike Bloomberg personally and “within 18 hours” Nocera was contacted and an exit from the Times and a soft landing at Bloomberg were being negotiated.

The reason he was moved from the editorial page in the first place is still a matter of some mystery.

“It’s nice to be wanted. He’s 64, he’s white. If you’re not under 35 at the Times, you’re not in vogue. There have been a lot of people at the Times who have said, ‘Where have you gone, Joe Nocera?’ A lot of people have wondered why isn’t he writing about business. I don’t know why Rosenthal was finally let go. There’s a lot of dead weight on that page but then you have James Bennet come on and he’s a nice guy but he’s done nothing.”

According to multiple sources, when Nocera was first removed from the op/ed page, he made a major push to be allowed to write about business. (In its first sentence, Nocera’s wikipedia entry describes him as “a business journalist.”)

According to one source, Nocera wanted to write two columns – one about business and one about sports. He had been writing twice a week for the opinion page, so that was not inconceivable. And in fact, one of Nocera’s best-known achievements at the Times was a series of columns about the way the NCAA exploits college athletes for financial gain, so that nexus was already established.

According to a source close to Nocera, that dual ambition wasn’t simply a reflection of a prolific pen but had a financial motive as well.

“The back story is that Joe had a book contract and it had a [stipulation] that if he wasn’t in the paper twice a week after publication of his book, he would lose a $100,000 book bonus.”

It is not known whether Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet knew about this wrinkle at the time but it wasn’t to be. Unfortunately for Nocera, “Baquet would not let him do it,” says the source. “Joe said, ‘I want to write about business, too.’ In one sentence, Baquet told him it wasn’t going to happen. When he couldn’t get Baquet to agree, he went to [Business Editor] Dean Murphy and then [CEO] Mark Thompson and [Politics Editor] Caroline Somebody [Ryan]. During the election, he put his hand up again, offering to write about Trump on business. So Joe took a 40% pay cut at the beginning of the year [because op-ed writers earn more than sports writers] and he loses $100,000 on the book.”

Baquet casts Nocera’s move from op-ed to sports slightly differently, echoing the business-sports nexus but neither confirming nor denying the oddness of Rosenthal shipping off a lifelong business writer for sports. Baquet told the Observer, “I actually made a run at Joe for sports because I thought sports business was such a great story and he had written much on it. He was one of the people who knew a lot about money and college sports.”

Others were equally surprised by the decision. Lawrence Ingrassia, who was an editor at the Times and helped recruit Nocera from Fortune, told the Observer, “I was no longer at the NYT when Joe became a sports columnist, so don’t know what went into that decision. The NYT has an abundance of talented business columnists (Jim Stewart, Gretchen Morgenson, Andrew Sorkin) I always read, and now David Leonhardt on the op-ed page, but I personally miss Joe’s smart voice and invariably interesting take on the business world.”

Emails to Andy Rosenthal and to James Bennet have not been returned as of publication time. This story will be updated if they reply.

Ever since Michael Bloomberg’s return to the place that bears his name, watchers of the company have wondered if the CEO has lost patience with the chronically money losing media operation. Shortly upon returning from twelve years of running New York City, Bloomberg shook things up. Longtime editor in chief Matt Winkler left after almost 25 years and was replaced by the Economist’s John Micklethwait. High profile – and expensive — hires such as Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have exited, and the company laid off at least 30 journalists last month as part of a refocusing on core business coverage.

But that parsimony apparently doesn’t extend to brand-name Times journalists, which Bloomberg himself is known to value, presumably both for their intrinsic talent and for the dent it puts in his rival’s offerings. In addition to Nocera and Shipley, Bloomberg hired Times biz reporter Andy Martin away in 2013 and landed a big fish in Ethan Bronner when he was recruited to serve as managing editor for Bloomberg.

Nocera is much loved for grooming younger colleagues, many of whom have become stars in their own right. Bethany McLean worked with him at Fortune, and he edited her Enron bestseller The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the pair co-authored the tempestuous All the Devils Are Here. McLean told the Observer, “Not only is Joe a great columnist, but he’s a wonderful long form writer and a fantastic editor. He has a true gift for clarity. I thought his talents were being wasted at the Times, particularly once they moved him to sports.”

Ingrassia, who worked at the Times with Nocera and is now an editor at the Los Angeles Times, also had glowing words for a writer her helped recruit. “Joe Nocera is one of the best business reporters of his generation. Full stop. He raised the bar by demonstrating that business reporters could write great narratives just like other reporters. And his business column in the NYT made business understandable and accessible to those who didn’t know how fascinating business could be. There’s a reason he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in his first full year as a columnist. He was a critically important piece of the puzzle as I recruited talent to elevate the NYT’s business and economic coverage. He is a tough-minded reporter who wasn’t afraid to hold power accountable. I still remember the angry call I got from Steve Jobs complaining about a column that Joe wrote about him and Apple, specifically (as I recall) calling Jobs out for not disclosing what was ailing him. He had tried to bully Joe on the phone, but Joe would have none of it – and in fact turned the table on Jobs. And Jobs is just one of many whom Joe took on.”

At BusinessWeek, Nocera will join a roster that includes writers who have learned at his knee. One of them, Devin Leonard, told the Observer, “I really learned how to write a magazine piece from Joe. I met him when I went to Fortune in 2000. I was star struck. I loved his work for Esquire and GQ. I’d read Piece of the Action, too. I had to do a long piece early on about Mort Zuckerman for Fortune and why he was a real estate wizard but a second-rate publisher. It was Joe’s idea. Mort was giving me the run around. I spent several months on the piece getting nowhere. I was still on probation, and I started to worry about getting fired. Joe knew Mort was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. So was Norm Perlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc. Joe had Norm put the arm on Mort and get him to talk to me. I wrote a draft and Joe edited it. We spent three days going through it line by line. Joe pretty much rewrote it, but he showed me exactly how he did everything. It was kind of like Charlie Parker showing how he played a saxophone solo. I’d written magazine features before, but that’s when I really learned how to do it.”

According to a source inside the Times, Nocera let the Times inner circle know on Friday and Baquet’s response apparently puzzled Nocera and others. He seemed genuinely disappointed in the veteran’s departure. “Dean was like ‘I’m so so so sorry, you were the best on business.’ Joe was like ‘huh? If you wanted me to write about business, you could have made it happen.'”

The source close to Nocera was perplexed and put it succinctly: “So Joe Nocera gets whacked by Andy Rosenthal, Arthur Sulzberger’s privileged childhood friend who did nothing on that page but worry about his own blog. He gets canned. And all the while Joe keeps saying can I write about business and no one will let him do it. And now he’s leaving and they don’t have him at all.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of James Bennet. The Observer regrets the error. Exclusive: Bloomberg Poaches Star Business Writer Joe Nocera From New York Times