- Both are non-public companies.
- Both rooted in journalism
- Both “Made in America”
A slight digression: The recent decades of consolidation in the legal publishing industry has resulted in the wholesale expatriation of control of American’s primary legal research content. (Lexis, born in Ohio is owned by Anglo-Dutch company, Reed Elsevier; West Publishing, born in Minnesota was bought by the Canadian, Thomson Corporation and CCH, born in Illinois, is owned by Dutch, Wolters Kluwer). What surprised me more than the mergers themselves, is the absence of outrage or even a lively discussion about the “expatriation of American law.” So I am saying it now. Finally a merger where the control of two American born engines of legal research are staying onshore!
In short, Bloomberg needs BNA’s content and BNA needs Bloomberg’s technology, innovative spirit and “deep pockets.”
Bloomberg has only existed for 30 years and yet it is growing a media empire while the established icons of journalism are dead or dying. So will that same combination of determination, innovation and calculated risk allow them to succeed in the legal market? It is not an insignificant factor that Bloomberg is a private company which is free to experiment and innovate in ways which are reminiscent of a Silicon Valley start up.
Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Government Expansion
Bloomberg’s acquisition of BNA makes sense for two separate market initiatives. Bloomberg Law had developed a solid product for primary law and dockets. Bloomberg has recently completed a re-audit and validation of their citator which will enhance it’s competitive standing, but it still lacked the secondary source treatises and commentary that lawyers rely on to flesh out their analysis of an issue.
Several years ago Bloomberg Law seemed to be indicating that they planned to develop newsletters to compete with BNA. While the newsletters that they were producing were popular with lawyers they simply didn’t replicate the depth of the BNA bench. In recent years BNA had also expanded it’s digital platform beyond newsletters and built out a number of resource centers. In a happy symmetry – while Bloomberg had been focused on building out practice areas with the tightest alignment to business (securities, corporate, finance, bankruptcy, Intellectual Property and litigation), BNA had been building resource centers for Employee Benefits, Labor, Intellectual Property, Environmental, Health and Professional Ethics. With the exception of IP, BNA brings a collection of digital libraries which Bloomberg had not yet begun to develop on BLaw.
Bloomberg had been tight lipped on product acquisitions but their executives and field staff were always listening for leads in the marketplace. The likely candidates for secondary materials included BNA, CCH, Law360, ALM’s Law Journal Press and Practical Law Company.
But the acquisition of BNA makes the most sense in light of the launch of the “other” Bloomberg product. With much less fanfare, Bloomberg has recently entered the government and regulatory space dominated by Congressional Quarterly by launching Bloomberg Government. Just as Bloomberg Law integrates law with Bloomberg’s robust cache of business data, Bloomberg has built a platform which integrates business analytics with legislation and regulation. The breadth of intellectual capital from BNA’s legislative and regulatory “brain trust” can serve both Bloomberg products quite well.
BNA Needed to Reposition (C-Span vs. People Magazine)
BNA has remained the “A Student” at the front of the class handing in sober and thorough “A+” assignments every day. But were they positioned to appeal to the “Google generation?”
BNA was facing growing challenge from smaller niche publishers especially Law360 which has taken a “lighter” approach to monitoring legal developments and moving aggressively to poach BNA’s market share. Law360 tends to provide shorter “snapshots” of legal issues and perhaps talking a page from the American Lawyer, gives more attention to the personalities of the law. Each issue of a Law360 publication displays a prominent index to law firms mentioned (and what law firm doesn’t like publishers to act as its marketing arm?) They also offer regular profiles and Q & A s with leading lawyers. Perhaps the focus on the personalities in the law explains its growth in a fairly mature market, and one which was largely “owned” by BNA.
Was BNA Too Good at What it did to Survive?
Several years ago I was fortunate enough to have one of BNA’s top editors accept a lunch invitation to meet with my library staff and provide an overview of BNA’s editorial process. It was one of those events that forever changed my view of a publisher. In this case, it cemented my respect for BNA as not just another newsletter purveyor with fungible content which could easily be cranked out by a rival collector of regulatory documents. The range and depth of the BNA’s editorial team was astonishing. BNA has more reporters on Capitol Hill than the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal combined. While a daily newspaper might assign a reporter to follow a proposed tax law for a current congress, BNA’s tax reporters would have been following the tax legislation for decades and could provide a perspective not only on the current proposal but on the history of similar proposals through prior congresses.
Reading vs Power browsing
A provocative discussion on the web’s impact on our brains can be found in the chapter entitled “The Juggler’s Brain” in Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows, which provides an ominous clue about BNA’s dilemma. Our brains have become adapted for browsing rather than reading. Studies indicate that a “power browser” spends fewer than 30 seconds “reading” a web page. (So if you are still reading this post, “congratulations,” you are still a reader!)
BNA is good, perhaps too good. BNA requires deep reading. If the younger generation of lawyers have developed “browsing brains” rather than “reading brains,” BNA was likely to encounter an erosion in readership unless the company could make a radical reassessment of it’s platform, editorial and delivery models. Bloomberg’s infrastructure, innovative technologies and ability to offer BNA an ” outsider’s perspective” may just help them make that transition.
BNA’s Intellectual Capital in the Capitol
The long term success of the BNA/Bloomberg deal may lie in Bloomberg’s ability to retain the BNA “brain trust.” Since BNA is an employee owned company, the acquisition may mean that the intellectual capital which has distinguished BNA from it’s rivals could make a hasty, bolt for the door.
Competition Is Good
Competition and innovation are good for the legal information marketplace. I hope this is a successful merger for all parties (including their customers).