I call them the journalist conversion reversions: The rare professional who dips a toe into public relations and then goes back. Changing careers is hard enough, but then being re-accepted back into the news business is a feat after testing what many journos call the “dark side.” [Editor’s note: We love our PR peeps.]
Kudos, then, to Bernie Kohn. After stints at respected dailies including the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, he spent some time as a director of communications and media relations and decided it wasn’t a fit. Still, Bernie now understands both sides. This undoubtedly makes him a better journalist at Bloomberg, where he is now news director of central news for the Bloomberg Industry Group.
I chatted with Bernie about how to break into Bloomberg, the future of daily newspapers and Bruce Springsteen:
Dawn: Tell me about your job.
Bernie: Bloomberg Industry Group provides professional tools, analysis and news for attorneys, tax and accounting professionals, and people in the government affairs and contracting worlds. As news director of Central News, I oversee the coordinating functions for all of it. My group includes audience development and curation, news automation, our enterprise-editing “hub,” investigations, news data and graphics.
Dawn: You’ve held numerous roles at Bloomberg. Which has been your favorite?
Bernie: I came to INDG from Bloomberg News in the then-new role of editor at large, which was roughly defined as being able to work on anything I wanted without any of the management hassle. Pretty much a dream job.
Dawn: What got you into journalism?
Bernie: Blame my seventh-grade English teacher in Schenectady, N.Y., Mrs. Dorothy Meyer. She took a special liking to my expository/pretentious writing on an assignment about what I would do to end a certain war the U.S. was stuck in. Only much later did I learn that Mrs. Meyer was my aunt’s college roommate, which was probably the real reason she was interested in me. But what she inspired stuck. I got my first paying job in journalism at age 15 and have been on someone’s journalism payroll ever since.
Dawn: What advice did you get from mentors along the way?
Bernie: The best may have been that editors are not responsible for teaching me, I am responsible for learning. As an editor, you’re at your best when reporters are convinced that the ideas you came up are actually theirs.
Dawn: What would you tell people trying to get into journalism today?
Bernie: To create your personal brand, you have to have a body of work worth branding. There is no substitute for curiosity; you can learn many skills, but you are either curious or you’re not. Don’t be afraid of business reporting; it’s a ticket to accelerating your career by years. And stop doing your work by email. You wouldn’t let your sources edit your stories. Why would you let them control your news gathering?
Dawn: How can someone who wants to work at Bloomberg stand out and get noticed by your recruiters?
Bernie: Be that person we see beating us all the time or doing something truly distinctive in an area we cover. Bonus points if you’re multilingual and willing to work outside the U.S.
Dawn: You worked at several amazing daily newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. What future do you see for daily newspapers?
Bernie: I wish I saw a better one. I find it astonishing that many metro publications still can’t wean themselves from print revenue in a meaningful way even as it shrinks to next to nothing. The Wall Street Journal created a revenue model when no one else had the guts to do it. The New York Times is the New York Times. Small-town newspapers with determined local ownership can make it because what they provide isn’t in the free online world. Anyone in the middle, I fear for them. Two of my former newspapers no longer exist, and they’re probably not the last to go.
Dawn: You spent a year in public relations. Why did you leave that field?
Bernie: The better question may be why I got in. Part of it was financial desperation after being let go in the middle of the ’08-’09 financial crisis with virtually no severance. But I also bought into the idea that journalism skills were transferrable to the PR world. Some are, but many of the most important ones aren’t. I knew after three weeks that I had made a mistake. Quitting wasn’t an option and the exit strategy took a little longer. Fortunately, I never lost touch with journalism or my journalism friends during that year, and I was fortunate to walk into the startup of a venture at Bloomberg.
Dawn: Did you learn anything useful during this year?
Bernie: At least in the government PR world, what matters is the person you work for. If that one relationship can’t work, nothing else can. I also got valuable insight into how government agencies viewed the media, including the tactics they used to avoid public records requests. It has helped me greatly in advising reporters in those situations.
Dawn: Back to today. What are your thoughts on AI and journalism?
Bernie: Automating press releases has gotten important information to our Bloomberg INDG paying customers faster than humans ever could, and freed up thousands of reporter hours to do the kind of value-added journalism only humans can do. We also know that in the life span of large language models — we’re where the Internet was at the invention of Netscape.
Dawn: What is the toughest story you’ve ever had to do?
Bernie: I was the conceiver and editor, not the reporter on the front lines, but the most monumental effort I’ve been involved in was chronicling the abuses of archaic ground rent laws in Baltimore. Speculators were seizing and then flipping thousands of peoples’ homes for being late on payments of as little as $24. No one realized this was happening on any kind of scale. It was a social crisis hiding in plain sight.
Maryland ultimately undid almost 400 years of land use laws and we were Pulitzer Prize finalists. We were told we didn’t win because we didn’t put anyone in jail but later on, we discovered that the speculators involved in ground-rent seizures (which were reprehensible but legal at the time) were also fixing the auctions of municipal sales of property for unpaid taxes — which was not legal. For that, they did go to jail.
Dawn: What is the story you’d still like to do?
Bernie: Sorry, we’re working on it now!
Dawn: What do you do for fun?
Bernie: I have a reputation of being a bit of a competitive madman. But two major injuries during COVID ended my running exploits and when it comes to competitive sports, I may be down to pickleball.
I get tremendous enjoyment out of youth mentoring. My very first mentee just got a great job with a well-known private equity firm and being part of her amazing journey warms my heart.
I am a suffering Washington Nationals season ticket holder and a major fan of great community theater. And with COVID behind us, it is time to start seeing the world again. And if Bruce Springsteen is on tour, I’m there. Have been since 1985.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.