Barney Kilgore, the inventor of the modern Wall Street Journal and, in important respects, the best of America journalism as we know it, died back in 1967. But he has something to say about journalism today, and we ought to listen.
The subject of a valuable and interesting new biography, Kilgore was the paper’s managing editor and general manager of its parent, Dow Jones & Co. (now stuffed and mounted in News Corp.’s trophy room), who presided over the paper’s great post-war transformation from sleepy trade paper to national financial news leader and promoted and/or invented journalistic techniques that made possible American newspapering’s latest, though surely not last, golden age.
The book Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism (2009; St. Martin’s Press), is by Richard J. Tofel, a former Journal assistant publisher and now general manager of ProPublica. It could not have come at a better time.
Here was a man far ahead of his time. And now, by a strange twist of circumstance, he is now ahead of our time, as well. He’s lapped us.
We in the media think we live in a uniquely challenging environment for our industry, and we do. Newspapers have responded to the challenge by offering journalism that is less distinctive and of lower quality than before. No one thinks this is working. Meanwhile, Kilgore’s and my old paper enjoy the luxury of relative abundance under its new owners, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. But even so, the paper drifts further and further away from Kilgore’s legacy by offering a paper that is scoop-driven, relentlessly focused on what happened yesterday, unwilling to stop to see the big picture, too worried about matching The New York Times, and becoming, generally, in my view, less distinctive from its rivals by the day. That this is out of design rather than necessity makes it all the more less puzzling. What rich and poor papers have in common is an apparent determination to blur what distinguishes one from the other.
It’s facile to say that Kilgore would have disapproved of Murdoch’s changes. Kilgore was an intensely practical, Midwestern, Depression-and-post-war era American businessman. He would have assessed the media landscape and tried to do what works. But, it’s interesting to note advice Kilgore gave in 1958, when he was already a major media figure, after a group of moguls, Jock Whitney, Walter Thayer, and Bill Paley, approached him about how to fix the struggling New York Herald Tribune (my emphasis):
“A newspaper has to set a course and creat the impression it knows what it’s about before it has much to sell,” [Kilgore said.]
Success would come, if at all, from strong content that would attract new readers, who would, only then, prove attractive to advertisers… Above all, in order to start this chain reaction, the paper needed to be distinctive. Editing the paper “with one eye on the Times was insufficient and, ultimately, self-defeating,” [he said].
And one more thing:
Then the paper needed to be calmed down visually, not to “overdo” headlines, to favor white space over screaming black.
It is true, times are different. But Kilgore, who started at the Journal in 1929, faced a challenging economic environment of his own and was no stranger to the problems of fending off competition from new media, cutting through the news clutter of his day, creating a community of readers, and—this is the hard part—holding their attention and commanding their respect. This, he believed, was the surest route to creating lasting value.
He was right then, and he still is today.
Here’s a hint: It wasn’t from frantically posting—whoops! I mean, printing—meaningless scoops and scooplets all day, every day, chasing what everyone else has while jettisoning investigations, on-the-ground reporting, narratives, scenes, context, and careful attention to storytelling.
When he joined the paper, Tofel recounts, the WSJ was pretty much what it had been since Charles Dow met Edward Jones at the end of the 19th century, a dreary trade paper full of dully written stories targeted to a narrow niche of readers—Think: the Deal.