Two Lessons for Today From a Journalism Immortal

Learning from Barney Kilgore around the anniversaries of his birth and death

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

In the weeks just ahead, we will pass the anniversaries of both the birth (November 9) and death 59 years later (November 14) of Barney Kilgore, a man many observers[1]—including me, his biographer—view as perhaps the leading inventor of modern journalism.

Kilgore’s innovations were numerous, some now so seemingly obvious that we take them for granted: the bulleted news summary, the anecdotal lead, the broadening of financial markets journalism to a larger understanding of business, the notion of a national newspaper (the same news, he often said, “from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon”), the satellite printing that made such a product feasible. But today I want to talk about two deeper ideas of Kilgore’s that are at once both timeless and yet remain often ignored, to publishers’ peril.

I began my book about Kilgore, who ran the Wall Street Journal, first as editor, then effectively as publisher, from 1941 until 1967, by describing a meeting he attended in 1958 with the group just then taking control of the New York Herald Tribune in what turned out to be a last (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to save that publication. The Herald Trib was then one of the nation’s two leading general interest newspapers, the voice of the establishment Republican Party; the meeting was specifically encouraged by President Eisenhower. But it was in trouble, having effectively lost its battle for local dominance with the New York Times during and just after the Second World War.

Lesson One: Distinctiveness

Kilgore brought a short memo of critique to the meeting. Its most devastating line was this: “It is not, as it now stands, a bad newspaper. But it is a little too much of a newspaper that might be published in Philadelphia, Washington or Chicago just as readily as in metropolitan New York.”

As journalists across the country seek to build and re-build a raft or new and renewed news organizations in the wake of a business crisis that has now lasted more than 16 years, this is, I think, the most critical point. Successful news offerings must be distinctive. It is no longer possible to prosper with a product or service that feels commoditized. Readers don’t have time for it. As Kilgore understood more than six decades ago, they haven’t for a long time.

When people approach me about how to shape a successful publication, this is always the first thing we discuss. The most promising ideas and teams have already embraced this challenge; with those who have not yet fully focused on distinctiveness, this is the critical dimension on which I seek to help them sharpen their thinking.

While circumstances, of course, vary enormously, two elements are always involved: the requirement of a coherent editorial vision (which can come alive, at the end of the day, only with a visionary editor) and deep grounding in the needs of readers, rooted in some combination of experience and, increasingly, data. (Kilgore’s 1958 memo called for a significant investment in audience research.)

Lesson Two: News for Tomorrow

In its glory days, the New York Daily News promoted its “bulldog” edition on TV as “tomorrow’s news tonight.” Barney Kilgore first understood the appeal of this slogan more than a half century earlier.

At the age of just 23, Kilgore began writing a column for the Journal in the form of a series of letters to a fictional friend, “Dear George.” On Wednesday, August 24, 1932, he outlined much of the editorial philosophy that would guide the remainder of his career. In the depths of what was emerging as the Great Depression, he tied finance to business, noting the markets mattered even to those who had abandoned stock ownership after the Crash of 1929 because stocks remained a barometer of broader business conditions. But much more importantly, he reached a key insight about news generally.

The markets tended, then as now, to be a leading indicator, even if an imperfect one. In considering this, young Kilgore came to realize what readers really wanted from news more generally. To “George,” he wrote, “As a matter of fact, you’d rather have some good indication of the future than to be fully and statistically informed as to the present and recent state of affairs, wouldn’t you?” At a time when radio news was still in its infancy and many people read both morning and afternoon newspapers, this was a counterintuitive point.

Kilgore’s question was rhetorical 80 years ago, but in today’s real time news cycle, his observation is even more profound. Readers come to the news, even to news of what may be thought of as current events, with a greater desire for insights into what will happen tomorrow than in what occurred yesterday or today.

Perhaps the best example of what this could mean came nine years later, in the Journal edition that appeared on the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That was the afternoon Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress seeking a declaration of war. Roosevelt memorably began his speech by looking backward: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, .…” But Kilgore’s newspaper that morning had instead looked forward in the prophetic first words of its lead article: “War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.”[2]

This sort of insight should remain, I think, the highest and most useful aspiration of journalism, even in our very different time. Yes, we report on what has happened, and especially on aspects of it that are unknown to the readers and listeners and viewers we serve. But we do so in service to their understanding of how it is shaping their future, and their ability to shape it themselves.

When we do that we are following in the footsteps of Barney Kilgore.

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[1] Notably including Rupert Murdoch, who said as much on the day in 2007 when he announced his bid to purchase Kilgore’s Wall Street Journal. Elsewhere, Kilgore was named in early 2000 as the greatest business journalist of the Twentieth Century.

[2] It wasn’t just the first sentence. Going to press less than a dozen hours after its staff had learned of the attack, the story continues with a strikingly accurate preview of the following four years:

“The American productive machine will be reshaped with but one purpose—to produce the maximum of things needed to defeat the enemy.

It will be a brutal process.

It implies intense, almost fantastic stimulation for some industries; strict rationing for others; inevitable liquidation for a few.

War with Japan will be a war of great distances.

Thus, certainly in its preliminary stages and probably for the duration, it will be a war of the sea and the air.

This means unlimited quantities of ships and shells, bombers and bombs, oil, gasoline.

Eventually, it also means an army dwarfing the present military establishment—5 million, 8 million. It’s a guess. [In fact, the US armed forces, which numbered 2.2 million at the time of Pearl Harbor, peaked just above 12 million.] But that will come later.”