WSJ’s Restless Genius

97803125367491“On the morning after Pearl Harbor, other newspapers recounted the facts already known to all the day before through radio. The Journal’s page-one story instead began, ‘War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.’ It outlined the implications for the economy, industry and commodity and financial markets.” A review by the Wall Street Journal of a book about itself; journalistic solipsism, but there is a point to it.

“Restless Genius,” a new book about Bernard Kilgore, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is well-reviewed and widely reviewed. It seems to be a good time to look at how one man could take a newspaper that was suffering from technological change and reinvent it.

“Barney Kilgore was the Journal’s dominant personality practically from the moment he was appointed managing editor in 1941, at the precocious age of 32, until his death in 1967, at the untimely age of 59,” says the Journal itself in a profile written for the paper’s centennial edition. Now, a book by Richard Tofel , a former assistant publisher of the paper, tells his story.

It is intriguing in all sorts of ways: a great narrative arc, complete with a crisis (a confrontation with GM: read Time’s version here). And at a time when the Journal is facing internal tensions, all sorts of lessons can be read into it. Kilgore prized interpretetive reporting; he introduced the longer read; he famously said that “It doesn’t have to have happened today to be news.” all of this seems to be at odds with what the present regime at the Journal is doing.

You can read it a different way. Kilgore came from the provinces to shake up a paper in trouble. Simply publishing stock prices was no longer enough – anyone could do that. The paper needed to gain an audience and keep them, and it needed to focus its efforts to do that. You can argue that different times need different approaches and that simply reproducing the same effort won’t succeed for the paper. Indeed, Kilgore himself had a failure, the National Observer – an attempt at a national US newspaper.

The interesting thing to a newspaper professional I think is that Kilgore (unusually for a newspaperman) thought strategically as well as tactically: he had a reputation both for a hands-on approach to getting the wretched thing out the door, but also for what would appeal to the wider market. The combination of both is unusual and attractive.

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