What Kilgore did was bet on quality: storytelling, depth, context—all those windy, high-minded things that sound tedious but are actually what make journalism worth reading. In effect, he bet on readers, and they rewarded him, in spades. When Kilgore died, in 1967, Journal circulation had topped a million and was on its way to becoming in the 1970s the country’s biggest-circulation paper, at 1.7 million. It’s about two million today.
It was always a hothouse flower, this odd journalism culture, and to be sure, it had its ups and downs. It needed subsequent generations to maintain it and build on it.
The fact is, the wrenching sale of the Journal’s parent in 2007 in effect grafted a News Corp. head on the Journal’s body. The graft never really took, and ever since a web of senior editors from the ancien regime has struggled to maintain old standards and practices while adapting to the new leadership. Freedman was part of that, my sense, a key part.
Of course the Journal still does great stuff—thanks in large part to this legacy—and will in the future. But there is a point of no return, and we’re fast approaching it.
I’d say Freedman’s departure could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it feels more like an anvil.
And another thing: The Journal’s loss may be Reuters’s gain, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. The unraveling of the Journal’s storytelling machine is a huge loss for the public. Reuters, in the end is, a wire, from an entirely different journalism tradition. It may one day be something else, but it has a long way to go.
The Journal really was unique. Maybe it can still be. Maybe not.