the audit

Listening to Kilgore

In a new biography, the journalism pioneer has something to tell us; will we hear him?
March 2, 2009

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):

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“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.

But how?

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.

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.

Fourth, write well:

The old ‘inverted pyramid” newspaper story Charles Dow had learned from Samuel Bowles [an early editor at the Springfield, Mass., Daily Republican]—“put it all in the first line”—and that had evolved in a formulaic “who, what, when, where, and why,” was, Kilgore noted, simply boring. Its decree that the information in a story becomes less important the farther the readers go into the story certainly helped editors in the composing room cut stories to fit available space, but it also implicitly encouraged readers to stop reading. This was precisely the opposite of what Kilgore understood an editor should be seeking. “The easiest thing in the world for any reader,” he reminded Kerby, “is to stop reading.” Even worse, the inverted pyramid formula implicitly discouraged analysis. Many articles would be more effective if they began, as had many that Kilgore had written in trip around the country these last eight years, a telling anecdote or provocative quote.”

So, that’s where that came from! No doubt, this innovation caused a lot of woeful newspaper writing over the years, but of course it cleared the way for greatness.

Fifth, don’t forget the nutgraf:

Articles beginning with anecdotal ledes, however, also required a new element, a straightforward explanation before a story got too far along, about what the article was actually about. In time, this statement, placed in a short paragraph of its own, became known as the “nut graf.” It is very difficult to determine the extent to which Barney Kilgore and Bill Kerby invented anecdotal leads and nut grafs in the newspaper context, but there is no question that both concepts became closely identified with, and typified by the Wall Street Journal leders.

Sixth, don’t overdo it:

Not every story, of course, could or should begin with an anecdotal lead. Some news stories were so urgent that such an approach would be counterproductive.

Those were only the start of his changes, which, as we know, brought the Journal to greatness. Among other things, Tofel tells us, he faced down General Motors in 1964, then the country’s largest company and the paper’s largest advertiser, in an epic battle that went a long way to establishing the American newsroom’s traditional editorial independence from the business side.

Listen, Kilgore rode a post-war economic boom that lifted the entire country. I realize that, and so did he. The Journal would probably have done well under any competent leader, I’m sure (although the Herald Tribune didn’t do so hot, did it?).

And we don’t know what he would have done today. Some of his ideas were certainly screwy.

For one thing, he had this bizarre management style. Get this: he would get up, walk around, and actually talk to non-executive people who worked for him, even, including, hold onto something, linotype operators, and even worse, reporters. Every day!

Here’s how Vermont Royster, the late, great Journal columnist, described it:

[H]e hardly ever had any department head to his office. Instead, he made a daily practice of going to see them.

After the morning’s paper work, he would start from his eyrie on the top floor and walk through the building, floor by floor. On the way he would stop in at the office of the advertising director, the circulation manager, the comptroller, the managing editor, and other key people. If they were busy, he might wave and pass on. If not, he would stop and ask them what was going on in their areas, what plans they had, and so forth. If he had questions, he asked. If he had thoughts, he would express them, more often phrased as suggestions rather than orders.

Along the way, he would also stop to chat with secretaries, clerks, or copyboys. These journeys would end in the basement where the printing presses were located. There, too, he would not only talk with the production manager, but also with linotype operators and pressmen, many of whom he knew and all of whom knew him. Only the newest employee ever called him Mr. Kilgore. To everyone else he was Barney.

Yes, on second thought, we should probably just forget Kilgore. The man would never make it today.

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.