Peter Kupfer: The man who made the Wall Street Journal

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America for]

At a moment in history when both Wall Street and the newspaper industry are undergoing upheavals that threaten their very survival, Richard Tofel’s new biography of pioneering financial journalist Barney Kilgore could hardly have been better timed. Restless Genius (St. Martin's Press, 288 pages) tells the story of how Kilgore transformed The Wall Street Journal from a lackluster, near bankrupt trade publication into one of the most powerful and prosperous newspapers in America. Along the way, he introduced a number of innovations, on both the editorial and business sides of The Journal , that have had a profound impact on the newspaper industry and journalism in general.

Kilgore began his career at The Journal shortly before the stock market crash of 1929 and the advent of the Great Depression, and it was his clear-eyed, plain-spoken coverage of the economic crisis and the government’s response to it that propelled him to prominence. The similarities between that dark chapter in American history and our current economic morass are striking. Although the New Deal is now widely credited with lifting the nation out of the Depression, many forget that the Roosevelt administration’s economic stimulus plan was highly controversial at the time — just as the Obama administration’s is today.

Kilgore, like The Journal itself, was a fiscal conservative and his views about the proper role of government are similar to those of today’s Republicans. While he admired Roosevelt’s political skills and his ability to inspire confidence in the American public, he had little faith in the government’s ability to revive the economy through higher taxes and massive spending. "No government ever really creates purchasing power," he wrote in 1934. "It merely has the power to redistribute it … it must tax Peter to pay Paul or tax Paul to pay Paul."

As the Depression deepened, Kilgore’s initial support for the New Deal gave way to increasing skepticism. In a series of articles he wrote in 1939, a decade after the Great Crash, he accused the Roosevelt administration of "a scatterbrained approach to the recovery effort and a punitive rather than constructive approach to the major problems of economic and social reform." Another article concluded: "The federal budget is simply out of control." Sound familiar?

Restless Genius chronicles Kilgore’s meteoric rise at The Journal — from an eager young reporter fresh out of college to columnist, Washington bureau chief, managing editor, and general manager of The Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Company — all in the space of a dozen years. What distinguished his work was his ability to explain complex economic issues in terms that were easy to understand and his willingness to experiment with new forms and approaches to the news. He was one of the first journalists to use summary boxes to highlight key points in an article. He pioneered the use of informal polls to get a snapshot of public sentiment on a particular issue. He also introduced a "Dear George" column, which was written in the form of a letter to an imaginary friend. In a 1932 "letter," for example, Kilgore offers George some thoughts on the significance of the stock market — advice that today’s investors might profit from as well:

"You say you are not interested in the stock market. The answer to that is that you probably are. I hear you muttering that you don’t own any stock any more and don’t intend to for a long while. That hasn’t anything to do with it. There are other things of interest in the stock market besides quotations on shares that you might happen to own … The stock market, in its important swings or "major movements," is one of the most valuable, accurate, cold-blooded barometers of modern business that has ever been discovered. Its record, traced back over a long period of time, is amazingly free from error."

Later, as managing editor and then general manager of Dow Jones, Kilgore introduced a number of features that became signatures of The Journal — many of which survive to this day. "What’s News," a front-page column summarizing the day’s events in succinct paragraphs, has been widely copied by other newspapers. The "A-Hed," a quirky, often amusing front-page story, remains one of The Journal’s most popular features. Under his watch, The Journal began to write about tomorrow as much as yesterday. Section fronts were anchored with forward-looking, analytical columns on specialized subjects like taxes, commodities and the federal government....

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