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RESTLESS GENIUS by Richard J. Tofel

RESTLESS GENIUS

Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism

By Richard J. Tofel

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-312-53674-9
Publisher: St. Martin's

Short biography of the man who turned the Wall Street Journal into the most successful paper in America.

Having taken only a single economics course at DePauw University, Barney Kilgore arrived in New York City in 1929 to accept a reporting job at the Journal a mere seven weeks before the biggest market meltdown in the nation’s history. During the course of his nearly 40-year career he would hold every important position at the paper, revolutionize the notion of business news and turn the enterprise founded by Charles Dow and Edward Jones into a national force. As a field reporter during the Great Depression, Kilgore wrote not for bankers, but for bank depositors, for and from the perspective not of insiders, but of readers, believing business news should be broadly understood as affecting everyone who makes a living. Despite access to a trove of Kilgore’s personal letters, former Journal assistant publisher Tofel (Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, 2005, etc.) recovers little of this buttoned-up Midwesterner’s inner life, but the story here is mostly about the Journal’s transformation. The author supplies a potted history of the paper, a look at the Bancroft family (especially C.W. Barron), who owned the Journal for 105 years, and mini-portraits of Bill Kerby, Vermont Royster, William Henry Grimes and Casey Hogate, all instrumental to the rise of Kilgore and the Journal. The changes Kilgore wrought, stylistic and substantive, included using anecdotal leads and “nut grafs” to give stories a magazine feel, employing front-page news summaries, establishing nationwide printing plants, adopting the Electric-Typesetter and attending to the new science of opinion polling. All helped shoot the Journal ahead of competitors, giving the paper sufficient clout and credibility to prevail in a memorable 1955 face-off with the country’s largest corporation, General Motors, when the unhappy giant threatened to pull advertising over a dispute with the paper’s coverage.

Good reading for students of journalism and for general readers interested in the history of an extraordinary institution, acquired last year by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.