The great broadening of business news came incrementally, then suddenly. Publications conceived during the go-go 1920s (poorly timed, as it turned out: BusinessWeek started in 1929) were aimed at a growing managerial and entrepreneurial class. Henry Luce staffed his new magazine, Fortune (launched 1930), with poets and novelists, including Archibald MacLeish, James Agee, and Dwight MacDonald, on the theory that it was “easier to turn poets into business journalists than it was to turn bookkeepers into writers” (and isn’t that the truth?). Fortune in the early and mid-1930s produced a spate of business writing so radical—including a scathing series on U.S. Steel by MacDonald, then a Trotskyite sympathizer—that Luce by the mid-1930s had to retake control and install a new editor. Still, the mainstreamed Fortune helped to pioneer in-depth business reporting with the “corporation story,” the classic corporate profile that became a minor art form, a tradition represented in this volume (see: “Inside Pfizer’s Palace Coup,” by Peter Elkind and Jennifer Reingold, with Doris Burke).
The real breakthrough in American business news came in 1941. That’s when the Wall Street Journal, undistinguished editorially and in desperate shape financially, elevated to managing editor a thirty-two-year-old DePauw graduate with a deft writing touch, an easygoing manner, and a clear vision of what business news could be. Bernard S. Kilgore was a midcentury, middle-American executive out of a Frank Capra movie. A devoted family man, he rode the commuter train from Princeton, marking up that morning’s Journal, and for relaxation changed the engine of the family Ford.
But he took business-news convention and basically tore it up. He ignored the inverted pyramid. He expanded story length, installed a new narrative writing style, and threw out hide-bound definitions of what was and wasn’t a “business story.” He created a system that would be able to produce two long-form stories a day that would take readers into corners of the economy they had never before seen: a salad-oil swindle in New Jersey, Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s broadcasting empire, slave-labor camps in Houston. Eventually, Journal reporters transcended business reporting—or one could argue, expanded it—to broach almost any subject of interest. The Journal found relevant to business readers the secret shame of illiterates, the Cabrini Green housing projects, the Falun Gong, you name it. Business news was now about a lot more than just what General Electric said yesterday.
After a tense few years waiting for the new format to take hold, success and acclaim followed. By the late 1950s, Harper’s would pronounce the Journal’s rise the “outstanding phenomenon in American daily journalism in the past two decades,” adding that “whether the (journalistic) broadening brought success or vice verse is an open question.” When Kilgore took over the paper in 1941, its circulation was 35,000. By the time he died in 1967, it was more than a million; by the late 1970s, it would top 1.7 million, passing the New York Daily News to become the largest-circulation paper in the United States, a place it has held off and on ever since.
Kilgore’s expansive journalistic vision, copied elsewhere, created a permanent argument in business newsrooms over the very purpose of business news and its intended audience—hence the disagreements Dr. Tambini found in his study. These tensions are, for the most part, healthy.
Much is made about the need to improve Americans’ “financial literacy”—nuts-and-bolts tools such as knowing which mutual fund to buy, how to avoid banking fees, and so on. But the Kilgore revolution was concerned with a more important pedagogical job: nothing less than the democratization of financial and economic knowledge. While it’s nice to know about financial and consumer products and services, it’s much more important to know about financial and corporate institutions and actors because they shape the world we live in. That’s the kind of “financial literacy” that counts.
Much of the business press today is built on a foundation laid by Kilgore. In a way, this book is another of his legacies.
Of course, business news, like the rest of the media, has continued to evolve. The mid-1990s saw an explosion of business news to accompany Americans’ stampede into the stock market (much later than many imagine). In 1996, by one count, twenty-two new business publications were launched. CNBC rose from cable TV afterthought to cultural icon. The 2000s brought even more dramatic changes—the tech wreck, a severe advertising recession, and the rise of the Internet started a great unraveling of institutional media and triggered the emergence of new journalism forms. We are now in a transitional moment: weakened legacy institutions bobbing in a vibrant, conversational, chaotic, and atomized digital sea. The degree to which what was lost from mainstream media is offset by gains in new media is a debate for another day.