When careers don't always go according to plan

'Who Sent Out That Jumping Bean Headline?’

Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what they wanted to do when they got older. I had done pretty well in school and figured I’d follow my nose until something turned up. It wasn’t until my mid-20s and my first job out of grad school with a publishing company that would later become part of Britain’s Economist Group that I determined I’d be a journalist. I’d always enjoyed writing and it felt like a good fit.

That first job ended up working out better than I could possibly have hoped. This was the company that first brought me to Central Europe in a professional role, and for five years, in the late '80s and early '90s, I worked out of their Vienna office writing articles about the former Eastern bloc, including then-Czechoslovakia.

The collapse of communism in 1989 had dramatically opened up writing opportunities in Central and Eastern Europe, and I began to think about moving somewhere in the region where I could report on the economic and political transformation first-hand. In 1991, I resigned my job in Vienna and relocated to Prague.

Fate was on my side in that move too. Shortly after arriving in Prague, I met two Americans, Lisa Frankenberg and Kent Hawryluk, who were setting up “The Prague Post,” an English-language weekly that had great promise in those early days. They were looking for a business editor to cover the economic side of the Communist transformation, and based on my prior experience with The Economist, I got the job.

Those first couple of years in Prague turned out to be highly satisfying from a professional standpoint. At the Post, we covered all kinds of once-in-a-lifetime stories, from the controversial sell-off of state assets all the way to the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Prague was regularly in the headlines in those early years, but then, sometime in 1994, the transformation story just seemed to run out of juice. The fall of Communism wasn’t going to hold the world’s attention forever and the newly minted Czech Republic was now safely on its way toward NATO and EU membership. Besides, a nasty war had broken out in the former Yugoslavia and was getting hotter by the day. The TV cameras and news crews had decamped to the Balkans in droves.

That year I decided to return to the United States. I was determined to keep my career moving forward and it had become apparent (to me at least) that if I wanted to progress as a journalist, I’d have to find a bigger pond. I'd have to go home.

My first real job out of grad school was as a reporter and later editor for "Business Eastern Europe," a weekly newsletter published in Vienna by a subsidiary of Britain's The Economist Group. From that point on, I determined I'd be a journalist. Photo by Mark Baker.
From Business Eastern Europe, I then went on to Prague to work as the business editor for a fledgling English-language newspaper "The Prague Post." It might have been a step down from The Economist, but it was a big step up in the types of stories we were able to cover. Photo by Mark Baker.

I’ll spare you the details of the relocation; it’s enough to say the transition wasn’t entirely smooth. While it felt right to be home again with my family and friends, I also missed my old life back in Prague. And I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to find a job. When I first left the U.S., eight years before, no one told me my overseas job experience wouldn't necessarily translate back in the home country, but that was true. American news organizations had no point of reference for evaluating my resume.

Finally, after months of searching (and receiving dozens of one-line rejection letters from places like the Akron Beacon-Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer), I landed a job as an editor with an emerging juggernaut in financial journalism called Bloomberg Business News. I was thrilled with the offer and felt my journalism career was safely back on track.

The transition to an American newsroom, especially one as high-stress and humorless as Bloomberg, was something I was completely unprepared for. I'd been away from the U.S. for a while and still suffering from reverse culture shock, and Bloomberg had more than its share of quirks on top of that.

My first assignment for Bloomberg was covering U.S. company news from their newsroom in Princeton, New Jersey. In addition to having to learn how to digest corporate earnings statements in a few short seconds, I was also expected to master the company’s notoriously opaque Bloomberg terminal, a standalone desktop device used by stock, bond and currency dealers around the world. It was anything but intuitive back then.

I have lots of memories from those early Bloomberg days, but one of the clearest came on my first or second day on the job, when I walked over to the workstation of my supervisor, a tough woman who ran hot and cold depending on the day, to ask where I could get a pencil. Instead of “Go to the supply room” or something like that, she gave me a hard stare and told me never to address her in person like that again. If I wanted her attention, I should send an electronic message over the Bloomberg terminal.

And that’s mostly how those early days went: a fairly mundane routine of logging in at 8am, staring into the Bloomberg terminal until time to go home (usually not before 6pm), avoiding unnecessary contact with co-workers, and waking up the next day to do it all over again. That’s certainly not to say everything was bad -- on the contrary, I met many talented people at Bloomberg and learned a ton about financial journalism (and writing generally) -- it’s just not what I had expected.

And then there was the cult of “Mike,” the aura that surrounded the company’s founder, Michael Bloomberg. This was years before he would serve as New York mayor or consider a run for president, but even back then his name was evoked in hushed, reverential tones. Right from the start, I learned never to say anything about Mike that might possibly be construed as critical. It just wasn't done.

Of course, I had no inkling at the time I’d be sitting across the desk from him one day having a terse conversation about Mexican jumping beans, but that moment was coming.

After eight years working in Europe, I found that my journalism experience didn't always translate on my return to the United States. Editors weren't sure how to evaluate my resume. Bloomberg made me an offer and I jumped at the chance.
Those first few weeks and months at Bloomberg were rough ones, trying to learn the intricacies of the company's flagship trading and information terminal, called simply "The Bloomberg."

I don’t want to give the impression I was some kind of malcontent from the start or didn’t give it my very best shot. I was determined to make my transition to the U.S. a success, and I took my job at Bloomberg very seriously.

After a few months in the New Jersey newsroom, that effort appeared to pay off when I was transferred to Bloomberg’s main newsroom in Manhattan to edit for the company’s bread-and-butter beats of Wall Street stock and bond trading. I was happy to be out of New Jersey and the promotion helped to keep that comforting myth of a logical career arc intact. Everything again made sense.

During my time at Bloomberg, I actually had two face-to-face meetings with Michael Bloomberg. The second, and last, was that jumping bean thing I’ve been teasing, but the first was much more pleasant and came shortly after I made the move up to New York. The story of that first meeting shows just how much I wanted that Bloomberg job to succeed.

As I said, I was pretty ambitious and determined to make an impression. I knew that Bloomberg was looking to expand its aspiring radio and television businesses, which were still fairly rudimentary. This was also during the mid-1990s, when the Republican-led Congress and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were regularly attacking the U.S. Public Broadcasting Corporation and publicly funded National Public Radio (NPR). Gingrich regularly called on the government to "get out of the culture business,” and in those words I saw the outlines of a deal.

For a few weeks back then, after work I’d head back to my New York apartment and spend my evenings drawing up the basic terms of a proposal for Bloomberg to offer to buy a stake in National Public Radio (or at least to demonstrate a public interest in the radio's survival). I reasoned that NPR’s well-educated and upwardly mobile listeners would suit Bloomberg’s target demographic perfectly. Bloomberg had the financial means to secure NPR’s cultural offerings and could use the network’s national platform to introduce its own news and business programming to a wider audience. If Gingrich really were serious about selling, Bloomberg could step in as America’s "White Knight."

Once I felt confident the talking points were ready for prime time, I cued up Mike’s name on the Bloomberg terminal and sent him an electronic message. The exchange went something like this:

“Hi Mike, I’m an editor in the newsroom. Could I stop by your office at some point? I have some ideas for a business proposal that I’d like to share with you.”

I sent it off, my heart skipped a beat, and then his name started flashing on my terminal (that meant he’d gotten the message and was responding):

 “Sure, come by this afternoon.”

 It was on.

I can’t recall the actual meeting in great detail, other than the fact it was relatively short. I remember nervously introducing myself, sitting across a surprisingly modest desk, presenting the rationale for my presentation, and then hitting him with what I thought was the deal-breaker: “Why not call Gingrich’s bluff and make an offer?”

He pondered it for a couple of seconds, let the silence hang, and then shook his head. “They’d never sell.” And that was that. It had been a fanciful idea anyway. He thanked me for the suggestion, and I went back to my terminal. Bloomberg, to the best of my knowledge, would never go on to approach NPR (and maybe in retrospect that’s not such a bad thing).

My former boss, Michael Bloomberg, pictured here long after I had worked for the company. I sat down with "Mike" face-to-face on two occasions. Once as a potential deal-maker, the other as a suspected rogue editor. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com
These are Mexican jumping beans (in reality a seed-pod stuffed with moth larvae that 'jump.') They were novelty items for kids when I was growing up, but ironically I can't remember ever having them myself. Photo credit: I, NobbiP [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

For the next year or so, my career at Bloomberg proceeded on an even keel. I hadn't noticed any big bump from my meeting with the boss, but I felt I was slowly rising among the ranks of the editors. As the day-to-day began to set in, though, I found myself missing my Prague life more and more, and started thinking about ways to return to Europe, perhaps through Bloomberg, which had a string of overseas bureaus.

The problem was that any transfer would have had to go through the company’s worldwide editor, Matt Winkler. Matt was (and still is) a legend in financial news circles, both for his excruciating attention to detail and unpredictable temper. His twinkling eyes and ever-present bow tie gave off the amiable impression of a nattily dressed Arte Johnson, but in conversation he had the inscrutable countenance of an owl and the (potential) temper of a pit bull.

I happened to catch Matt one day in the corridor and mentioned off-hand that I’d be interested in returning to Europe at some point if Bloomberg had an opening they thought I could fill. Right away, I realized I'd made a colossal blunder (somehow I’d forgotten the first lesson I’d learned at the company about approaching people unannounced). He was obviously peeved by the interruption and I’ll never forget his response (delivered in not quite a yell, but louder than a normal conversation): “At Bloomberg, it’s not what you want. It’s what we want for you.”

That interaction was a big letdown, and from that moment on I drifted into what might be termed the "dissident" camp in the New York newsroom: a group of editors and reporters who still worked hard and tried their best, but without always buying into the Bloomberg hype and rah-rah.

I suppose that also explains my mindset heading into the moment that would change my career trajectory, not just at Bloomberg but for just about everything that would come after.

It was an ordinary day, around lunchtime, and one of my routine tasks was to send out over the Bloomberg terminal an hourly headline for the U.S. dollar and Mexican peso. The announcement was meant for currency traders around the world and read something like this: “The U.S. dollar is trading at xx to the Mexican peso” (with the xx being the actual rate).

I dutifully cued up the headline on the screen and as a joke changed the words “Mexican peso” to “Mexican jumping bean.” I had no intention of sending it out over the system like that (and certainly meant no ill will toward Mexico, the peso, or Bloomberg); it was simply a dumb reference to a child’s novelty gift. I nudged the editor at the workstation next to me to show him my little joke and then went to clear the screen. Unfortunately, as I went to hit “delete," my finger accidentally bumped “send.” I sat in frozen terror as the jumping bean headline crossed the terminal to viewers around the world.

What happened after that is something of a blur. The newsroom erupted, telephones rang and everyone wanted to know the same thing: “Who sent out that jumping bean headline?”

I quickly fessed up to my supervisor, who turned me over to Matt, who turned me over to Mike, and once again I found myself sitting across from the boss over his surprisingly modest desk. The polite civility of our first encounter was gone, though to his credit he was more stern than angry: “You know, mistakes like that can ruin my company.” I apologized, said it wouldn’t happen again, and returned to my workstation. Talk about a bad day at the office.

In truth, it had been a fairly minor error. A juvenile joke for sure, but no fortunes had been won or lost, and no markets moved. Currency traders around the globe probably allowed themselves a half a second or so to smirk before returning to their jobs of buying and selling money. At the same time, nothing after that was ever the same.

I actually managed to keep my job at Bloomberg, but it was made pretty clear that it would be a long while before I ever found myself back on the fast track. Six months later, I resigned and within a year I was back in Prague.

That carefully crafted career arc had cracked (and for the dumbest of all reasons), and yet maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Within a few months back in Europe, I'd managed to land an editing job at Radio Free Europe that was closer to my area of expertise than what I’d been doing at Bloomberg, and life went on. The path, though, had been anything but logical.

Comments

  1. What a great article, Mark, thanks! That accidental “bump,” sending the exchange rate of the Mexican jumping bean around the world, was probably one of the luckiest things that ever happened to you. Imagine if you’d actually acclimated to Bloomberg, how miserable you’d have been…

    • Hi Jim, a cautionary tale, but you’re right. Looking back, sometimes fate needs a jumping bean or two to tell you where you really ought to be. 🙂

  2. Great blog, another great post! You really captured some of that special brand of Bloomberg angst. I spent some time in that (Fifth Ave?) office, then worked abroad for them briefly. The cult of Mike was definitely not as strong in the far-flung bureaus. In fact, there was a sense of cameraderie. Everyone hated working there, and we bonded to some extent as a result, like in an American public high school. My days as a Bloomie are long since behind me as well.

    Your misstep is also typical of newswire reporters: intelligent, over-educated, underachievers performing rote, yet highly stressful tasks (flashing the NYSE open, calling Mr Rent-a-Quote at Nomura for the third time that week, etc). Everyone slowly going crazy.

    I once mistakenly sent a joke headline as well, but it only went it as far as the editor. I made a quick phone call, explained that a botched cut and paste job had garbled the text, and nothing ever came of it.

    Life is a game of inches of course.

    • Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, and of course for your nice comments about my blog! Very much appreciated. I think you really have to work there to understand the reality. I would love to hear the story of your joke headline!

      • Yes, I am surprised no one has ever written the great Bloomberg novel! Captured its essence. Up to you and me I suppose….

        My little episode happened a few years after I left the Bloom, when my career was in one of its occasional low points. I was still in financial news, but now at an obscure wire. I was actually training a new employee, showing him how to flash headlines, and since it was just an example I made some crazy joke in the headline and somehow sent it off to London. There was that moment of sheer panic, and then everything was OK.

        Wires seem to bring out that sort of behavior, which I believe stems from the combination of the stress of having to crank out so many stories and headlines per day and the boredom of writing about issues of limited interest outside the financial world.

        I am quite distant from that world now, and that sleep-deprived hack, caffeined up all day, drinking fairly heavily or smoking pot in the evenings, is gone.

        Ah, the memories! If you haven’t already, check out The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. It describes the now deceased IHT, so it is a rather more rarified world than our humble wires, but it captures a bit of that life.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker