We believe facts are facts and that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting. We thus believe that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral. News, in short, is not merely a matter of views. And truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.

Peter R. Kann
Letter From the Publisher: A Report to The Wall Street Journal’s Readers
2240 words
12 January 1993
The Wall Street Journal

Truth is attainable. See, I read those words in the Providence Journal newsroom, where I was on the investigative team, and it may have been then and there that I decided I wanted to work for someone who would write something like that. Within a couple of years, I would meet Peter Kann, along with a bunch of other newly hired Journal staffers.

Kann is modest, smart, soft-spoken, funny, informal, given to rubbing his balding head and saying “uh,” before saying something self-deprecating or in praise of great reporting, which he clearly loves. He was a protégé of the great Barney Kilgore, the post-war inventor of the modern Wall Street Journal, which is like being a psychoanalyst who trained under Freud. He risked his neck in Vietnam and won a Pulitzer for reporting on the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. He once responded to an editor’s cable ordering him out harm’s way thus: “Message unreceived.” He is one of long tradition of former reporters—that’s right, reporters—dating to at least 1933 to run the Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co., a global media company.

He is also without question the last reporter who will ever run Dow Jones, mainly because there’s not going to be a Dow Jones much longer—in large part because of Kann himself. Two weeks after Kann retired, Rupert Murdoch News Corp. announced its $60-a-share offer for the company, exposing DJ’s financial weakness for all to see.

I take no pleasure—none—in saying what every media analyst and WSJ staffer already knows: no single person did more to put Dow Jones in peril than Peter Kann. Not by a long shot.

The tragedy is that no one knows better the consequences of Murdoch getting DJ than Kann himself. And no one would feel worse about it.

As he said himself In a letter two weeks ago, praising the controlling Bancroft family for their opposition to the News Corp. bid:

“There is a higher calling to what the people of Dow Jones do each day,” Mr. Kann wrote. “They are not merely producing and selling products like corn flakes or computer chips.” Rather, he said, they are producing products that “empower the citizens of free societies.”

Yeah, but you gotta pay for it. That’s the CEO’s job.

One could argue about Kann’s responsibility, but who else gets the nod? His wife? That doesn’t seem fair. Rich Zannino, his successor? No way. Mike Bloomberg, for whipping his rear end? I don’t think it works that way.

Kann was in charge from 1991 until last year, the period when Dow Jones fell from being a great power among media companies—let’s call it France, because it’s classy—to become the industry’s Ottoman Empire. It still had its glittering palace on the Bosphorus—that would be the Journal—but it was one hard push away from crumbling. That push has now been provided by the chronicler of Keira Knightley’s “t*ts.”

But it’s not just a matter of having titles. It’s what you do with them, how you react to bad news and whether you nurture a culture that acknowledges problems so they can be fixed.

But at DJ, candor grew ever more scarce, accountability seemed to stop at the newsroom door and management discourse began to resemble one long Medal of Freedom ceremony. This is corrosive to any institution, no matter how great.

The troubles begin with something called Telerate, which, an analyst quoted in a Fortune story in 1998 would correctly call, “the mother of all write-downs.” This would be Dow Jones’s Iraq.

As DJ cognoscenti know, Telerate was a financial data provider that DJ bought in stages under Kann’s predecessor in the late 1980s. At the time, the company was a giant among financial information companies, and Bloomberg—the Dow Jones of today—was still stoppable. But while Telerate’s data were limited, static, and hard to manipulate, Bloomberg reinvested in technology that allowed traders to make information stand on its hind legs and bark like a dog. Reuters, too, invested more than $1 billion in technology in the early 1990s, trying to keep up, according to Joe Nocera in Fortune. Dow Jones just pulled out profits. This went on for years—and that was Kann.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.