By Myron Kandel
In August 1958, John Hay Whitney, who was days away from buying the New York Herald Tribune, tried to woo Barney Kilgore away from The Wall Street Journal and its corporate parent, Dow Jones & Co. Though Whitney failed in his effort -- he wanted Kilgore to leave the leadership of Dow Jones and run the Trib instead -- he did elicit from Kilgore a long outline suggesting ways in which the Trib could best position itself to thrive in an increasingly competitive newspaper environment. (For example, Kilgore said, make the news "more accessible to the average reader.") The Herald Tribune did manage to survive for a while -- before finally succumbing in 1966, after two devastating New York newspaper strikes.
Richard J. Tofel begins "Restless Genius" with this anecdote and rightly so: It shows Kilgore's high standing in the newspaper world of his time, a useful bit of instruction for readers -- especially readers of this newspaper -- who benefit from the legacy of Kilgore's ideas and innovations but who may not be aware of his name. Mr. Tofel's book is both an engrossing biography of Kilgore (1908-67) and an appreciation of his work as a newspaperman -- his role, as Mr. Tofel's subtitle has it, in "the invention of modern journalism."
Born and raised in Indiana, the son of a school superintendent turned insurance salesman, Leslie Bernard Kilgore (called "Barney" by nearly everyone) was intellectually precocious. At age 16, he entered DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he eventually edited the campus newspaper and developed friendships with some talented young journalists who would later become his colleagues at The Wall Street Journal. Nearing graduation, he applied for a job at the Journal and started work there in September 1929, seven weeks before the Crash. Three months later he was posted to the paper's West Coast edition, with the title of San Francisco news editor. At 23, he began writing a column, which to his delight was also published in the New York edition. He became Washington bureau chief at 26, managing editor at 32 and general manager of Dow Jones & Co. at 34.
Kilgore believed in humanizing articles on even complicated subjects, insisting that editors and writers try to make room in news stories, whenever possible, for anecdotes, narrative details and portraits of individuals, thus bringing topics alive for that "average reader." But he also had a sophisticated understanding of the Journal's core subject areas, not least economic matters. He was often sharply critical of FDR's New Deal programs, even though the president publicly praised his work on several occasions.
While researching his biography, Mr. Tofel -- who worked at the Journal in several capacities, including assistant managing editor and assistant publisher (he left the paper in 2004) -- was allowed access to 30 years of correspondence between Kilgore and his father. One letter, written when Barney was just starting at DePauw, epitomizes the elder Kilgore's stern but loving persona. "The main thing is to train your mind in clear and straight thinking," he wrote to his son. "The habits of thought you are forming now will stay with you as long as you live." It is not hard to see how such words themselves helped to form the man who would, for decades, define the Journal's reportorial voice and defend its integrity.
In his early years at the paper's helm, Kilgore introduced front-page summary columns and, more important, spruced up the paper's content and writing, introducing the famous anecdotal "leaders." His changes broadened the Journal's appeal beyond the financial community to the business world at large. He raised the paper's stature in other ways as well. While it may be hard to believe today, in the mid-1950s General Motors was so powerful, and its advertising so important, that few publications dared risk its displeasure. But the Journal engaged in some very aggressive reporting on the auto industry, culminating in a report that included unauthorized illustrations of upcoming GM models. The company was furious and pulled its advertising. Kilgore stood his ground, and GM backed down.
Although Kilgore led The Wall Street Journal to new levels of editorial achievement -- and also supervised its huge growth in circulation and revenue -- he did suffer one notable journalistic setback, with a paper he created. It was The National Observer, a weekly that began in 1962. Self-described as a "new kind of publication," the Observer strove to provide good writing and astute interpretation on a mix of subjects, including what it called "the business of living." It was the first truly general-interest national newspaper, and it arrived two decades before the birth of USA Today. Despite strong circulation, the Observer never obtained enough advertising to make itself profitable, and it died 15 years after its birth.
Mr. Tofel contends that The Observer, with its emphasis on explanatory journalism, was ahead of its time and even now could provide lessons to newspapers struggling to hold on to readers in a digital age. "More than a few reporters and editors," he writes, "thought that Kilgore, sometime during the sixties, would have found a way" to keep the Observer going.
Kilgore retired as president of Dow Jones in 1966, confident that he was leaving the company and the newspaper in good hands. He died the following year, just after his 59th birthday. The Journal's circulation, which was under 32,000 when he became managing editor in 1941, was then just about one million. It later rose to two million. It is hard not to think that, were Barney Kilgore alive today, he would be saddened by the perilous state into which most of the nation's newspapers have fallen but would also be hard at work trying to revive their fortunes.
Mr. Kandel was the last financial editor of the New York Herald Tribune and the founding financial editor of CNN.