A true whiz kid, Kilgore mastered the form and quickly transcended it. He distinguished himself (unlike many of today’s news executives) first as a writer and reporter, combining shoe-leather newsgathering among regular folks with excellent contacts among business and government elites. Armed with nothing but a poli sci degree and a single course in economics from DePauw (note the non-Ivy League pedigree), he proved especially adroit at explaining macroeconomic concepts, which is an accomplishment, considering as Tofel notes, that this was before there was macroeconomics, since Keynes didn’t lay the foundation for the discipline for The General Theory Of Employment, Interest, and Money until 1936. Kilgore experimented with journalism forms, including a popular column of fictional letters called “Dear George” (an early blog?) that explained pressing economic issues in a folksy style. The columns were signed “RW.” (To this day, nobody knows where “George” and “RW” came from.) He did plenty of on-the-ground reporting (including a series from central New York that exposed flaws in the National Recovery Administration, making an enemy of its powerful chief, Hugh Johnson), then ran the Journal’s Washington Bureau, where he pioneered, among other things, new ways to gauge public opinion. Finally, in February 1941, he was named theJournal’s managing editor.
He was thirty two.
Are we getting the picture?
Okay, and now his career would really take off. What he did was basically tear up and throw away everything everyone of his day thought about newspapers.
Here were the rules for a new kind of page-one story, known as a “leder,” handed down by Kilgore and his longtime lieutenant, Bill Kerby, as recounted by Tofel:
First, think big:
Reporters were told they should no longer write stories about banking with an audience of bankers in mind—better to aim for the almost infinitely more numerous bank depositors. As a later article summarizing changes would put it, the new view was that “business news embraces everything that relates to making a living.”
I always thought Kilgore broadened the paper’s reach out of lofty journalistic motives, to appeal to readers as citizens, to aid the search for truth, beauty, etc. Um, no. It was to attract more readers so advertisers would pay more.
“Financial people are nice people and all that, but there aren’t enough of them to make this paper go.”
Kilgore did what worked, and what worked was what was interesting, in-depth, and well-told. For instance, we think we’re the first generation to worry that readers already know the basic facts before they ever pick up a newspaper or log onto a Web site. Kilgore would have a good laugh about that one. It was precisely because readers already knew the basics from other Web sites, err, from other newspapers, TV, and radio, that the Journal had to distinguish itself.
Second, don’t worry so much about what happened yesterday:
Articles no longer needed to be pegged to news that had occurred, or could be made to have appeared to occur, the previous day. Indeed the use of the words “today” and yesterday “ in leders was strongly discouraged. Trends were what was important. As Kilgore had noted in his key “Dear George” column nine years earlier, readers were more interested in tomorrow anyway…
Third, be great:
Above all, Journal leders needed to be distinctive. The newspaper was designed to be a second read, a complement to a metropolitan paper. Accordingly, it didn’t need to write about everything (“What’s News” would cover readers’ basic needs in that regard); it needed to hold readers attention on those subjects on which it did choose to engage.
But that takes discipline, resources, and a commitment to quality. The stories have to be good, not just long.