The Wall Street Journal

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The Wall Street Journal

Someone glancing at the front page of The Wall Street Journal for the first time might be deceived. Unlike other newspapers, the Journal does not have, with one exception, multiple-column headlines or any photographs. It does not look like most newspapers. One might get the impression that the Journal is a conservative newspaper, and on one hand, the observer would be correct. The Journal became the United States' first national newspaper in the twentieth century and was a leader both in innovative writing styles as well as espousing politically conservative opinions. On top of that, it had the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in the United States. Clearly, it would be wrong to pigeonhole a publication that began as a handwritten sheet of business news and a century later was a three-section highly regarded newspaper that could claim more than thirty Pulitzer Prizes.

The newspaper that a twentieth-century president (Harry Truman) referred to as "the Republican bible" was founded in 1882 by Charles H. Dow and Edward D. Jones as part of Dow Jones & Company. In fact, for at least the first fifty years of its existence, the Journal played second fiddle to the company's profitable business news ticker. In that first half century, it was not uncommon for Journal reporters to trade in stocks they also wrote about, a conflict of interest that William Henry Grimes ended when he became the managing editor in 1934. Grimes, who would win the Journal's first Pulitzer Prize in 1947, established the paper as independent of its sources rather than beholden to them, which enabled it to report more freely and confidently on business news and to be more trusted by readers.

The man who ultimately shaped the modern Wall Street Journal was Barney "Bernard" Kilgore, who replaced Grimes in 1941. At the time, the Journal published two editions, the second of which was called the Pacific Coast edition. It was Kilgore's goal to make the paper national, meaning a reader in Los Angeles would get the same paper as readers in Miami, St. Paul, Houston, and New York City. Folding the Pacific Coast edition into the regular edition was one of Kilgore's first steps in that direction. Kilgore was ahead of his time as far as technology was concerned. Although one could argue that because it was not delivered on the same day nationally, the Journal was not technically a national newspaper, Kilgore's vision paid off when satellites eventually made it easier for the newspaper to be distributed to regional printing plants for home delivery around the United States. The use of satellite delivery from a central location to regional plants became a model that other newspapers such as USA Today and The New York Times later followed.

Many of Kilgore's changes remain part of the newspaper. He had a great impact on the paper's writing style, for example. He told reporters to write for the readers, not for bankers. He had been a highly regarded writer, and when reporters once complained to President Franklin Roosevelt that they could not understand the federal budget, FDR replied: "Read Kilgore in The Wall Street Journal ; he understands it." Kilgore's axiom that reporters should write for the readers, not the people being written about, became conventional wisdom throughout the newspaper industry.

Kilgore also decreed that not all stories had to be written in the inverted pyramid style, that is with the most important information at the beginning of the story and the least important at the end. Instead, he not only encouraged reporters to produce in-depth stories that did not have a peg to yesterday's news, but also broadened the topics that reporters could write about. In his mind, just about any story could fit under the rubric of business and economics. Reporters produced not only company profiles but also stories on social trends and stories that some editors would view as whimsical or off the wall. It was Kilgore who ended the use of photographs on the front page and it was Kilgore who moved the Journal out from under the shadow of the Dow Jones news ticker. Under his watch, the Journal began building circulation and making money.

In reality, The Wall Street Journal is more than just one newspaper. It encompasses several other business-related newspapers and magazines, both in print and on line. Among them are The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly Edition, National Business Employment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal Americas, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Barron's, Dow Jones Financial Publishing, and Smart Money. One offshoot not listed is the National Observer, which Kilgore created in 1962 and which lasted until 1977. It was, in effect, the Journal's Sunday paper or weekly magazine and it was filled with analysis and features. It was such a different paper that among its early staff writers were nontraditionalists such as Tom Wolfe, later a force in the New Journalism movement, and Hunter S. Thompson, whose first major success was Hell's Angels, based on an article he had written about the infamous motorcycle gang. Perhaps if Kilgore had lived longer, the National Observer would have succeeded. But he died within five years of its founding, after working for the Journal for 38 years. While the Observer survived for another 10 years it was without its founder's guiding hand.

As the Journal began its second century, it became more known for its archly conservative editorials than for its news coverage. This is somewhat surprising, since the bulk of the paper's Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded for its reporting, not its editorials, although that dichotomy reveals much about the paper. The Journal, of course, has always been conservative on its editorial page, but the page gained notoriety because of the perception that its voice had changed from conservative to ideologue and had lost its independence.

Politics aside, the Journal ranks as a pacesetter in journalism, not just business journalism. Its large circulation and national audience speak to the wisdom of men like William Grimes and Barney Kilgore.

—R. Thomas Berner

Further Reading:

Dealy, Francis X. The Power and the Money: Inside the Wall Street Journal. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing Company, 1993.

Rosenberg, Jerry Martin. Inside the Wall Street Journal: The History and the Power of Dow Jones and Company and America's Most Influential Newspaper. New York, Macmillan, 1982.

Scharff, Edward E. Worldly Power: The Making of The Wall Street Journal. New York, New American Library, 1986.

Wendt, Lloyd. The Wall Street Journal: The Story of Dow Jones and the Nation's Business Newspaper. Chicago, Rand McNally, 1982.