April 5, 2009
In Praise of Phlegmatic Burghers
More good stuff on the journalism beat. Nicolas Lemann’s “Paper Tigers” reviews new biographies of media moguls past and present, including a marvelous pivot between the flashy Hearst and Pulitzer to the double-breasted world of The Wall Street Journal’s Barney Kilgore:
Kilgore and his colleagues did figure out how to publish a home-and office-delivered daily newspaper nationally, something that was far more difficult to accomplish in the nineteen-forties and fifties than people who have grown up with the Internet can imagine. The Journal’s circulation, which was thirty-two thousand when Kilgore became its managing editor, in 1941, rose to just above a hundred and fifty thousand in 1950, eight hundred and twenty-five thousand in 1962, and almost a million when Kilgore died, of cancer, at the age of fifty-nine, in 1967.
When Kilgore started out at the Journal, reporters sometimes sold advertising, and Kilgore’s own early work as a reporter entailed experimentation with forms carried over from the nineteenth century, such as articles written as letters to an imaginary friend. By the time the Journal had come to full maturity, it had helped establish the journalistic norms of reportorial nonpartisanship and of independence from advertiser pressure. As Tofel observes, it was less a standard newspaper than a news-and-business magazine published daily on newsprint, closer to Fortune and Business Week than to either Hearst’s New York Journal or the Times, both of which were edited on the assumption that they would be their readers’ sole source of news.
Still, Kilgore did much more than develop the manners and mores of modern Úlite journalism. The newspaper he built was full of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, like the use of line drawings on the front page instead of photographs, the heavy use of peppy news briefs in lieu of stories, the not very funny daily cartoon cornily titled ‘Pepper . . . and Salt,’ the right-wing editorial page, and the goofy human-interest story in the middle of every day’s front page. No less than Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World, the Wall Street Journal bore the stamp of Kilgore’s personality, which turned out to be one that appealed to a large audience of phlegmatic businessmen like him.
I think Lemann actually goes too far in emphasizing the WSJ’s blandness next to the rough-and-tumble world of the full yellows — in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, the ecology of financial news and the stock exchanges — “a late-nineteenth-century version of a Bloomberg terminal — a high-priced, custom-produced collection of timely data on the financial markets which was distributed to people who planned to trade on the information” — was every bit as crazy, with people fighting each other over information (and misinformation) — less Bloomberg than CNBC.
(I’m including this clip of Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler slightly because it begins with a crazy scene where Mabuse has used the newspapers to manipulate the stock market into a mighty short-sell, but mostly because I just love this movie.)