How Newspapers Once Survived Near Death
Fifty years ago, when newspapers were dying, Barney Kilgore, the inventor of modern journalism, provided words for them to live by. Now, his advice is more relevant than ever.
These are, as you may have heard, tough times for newspapers. But they are not the first tough times. In just four years during the mid-1960s, for instance, New York City lost the papers that had come to carry the nameplates of William Randolph Hearst’s American, James Gordon Bennett’s Herald, Hearst’s Journal, the Mirror, the Sun, the Telegram, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, and Joseph Pulitzer’s World.
The efforts to save these dying institutions, especially the Herald Tribune—then the New York Times’ leading competitor—remain a staple of newspaper nostalgia, and have literally filled books. But what relevance do they have for our own time? No Internet threatened then, no cable television. The '60s were a time of economic growth.
Yet, some home truths of newspapering remain, and at least one leading figure of that earlier time saw this clearly. His name was Barney Kilgore. He had built The Wall Street Journal from a narrow financial paper of 30,000 circulation into a business giant then nearing a million copies a day, and headed for two million. He had revolutionized newspaper content, inventing the daily news summary, popularizing the practice of beginning feature stories with an anecdote, blazing news paths both as a reporter and as a columnist. Then he had led a transformation of the newspaper business, mastering the technology of national printing and distribution, then selling advertising nationally. Rupert Murdoch, when buying the Journal in 2007, had said that Kilgore “invented modern journalism.”
Still, what bearing does this have on the troubles of our own time? Some advice Kilgore offered 50 years ago can tell us.
He was called in by the new owners of the Herald Tribune—the last owners, as it would turn out. They knew they faced challenges, but were uncertain which way to turn. Kilgore made a few key points then that hold great value today as well. He did not get lost in tactics or trivia, did not let his vision be obscured by the extent of the difficulties, did not just try to muddle through. Here is what he told them, what he had learned more broadly—and what he can teach us:
Distinctiveness is essential. The Herald Tribune, Kilgore told its owners in 1958, was too much defined as not-The-Times. And it was “a little too much of a newspaper that might be published in Philadelphia, Washington or Chicago just as readily as in metropolitan New York.” In our own world of seemingly boundless information, this point is even more critical: Successful publications, in any medium, must be worthy of a reader’s time, and the only sure way to achieve this is to offer quality content that can be found nowhere else.
Less can be more. Kilgore’s Journal was published in a single section; he thought 32 pages was the optimal length. For a newspaper under pressure, he recommended shorter stories, fewer “jumps” or continuations. The requirement of distinctiveness meant that some pieces would need space, but, overall, “it may be better to have a good regiment than a weak division.”
Necessary cuts should be made strategically. Kilgore was a kind and gentle fellow. But he had worked through the Great Depression and could cut costs when necessary. When that time came, though, he warned that piecemeal change was self-defeating: “My father used to say it is a mistake to cut off the cat’s tail an inch at a time. Doesn’t help the cat.”
Today’s newspaper should be about tomorrow’s events, not yesterday’s. This was probably Kilgore’s greatest insight, and it was one he first stated as a columnist in the Journal at the age of 23. Readers, Kilgore realized, turn to newspapers not because they are all fascinated by contemporary history, and want to puzzle out what another publisher later called journalism’s “first rough draft” of it. No, they want to know about what happened yesterday so that they can more intelligently cope with today, and tomorrow. More than 75 years after young Barney Kilgore set this rule out in his column, many publishers still haven’t fully absorbed it. Readers instinctively have. This has become even more important in a world where the Internet conveys new facts in real time, while the meaning of those facts often seems lost in a jumble of instant opinions.
The owners of the Herald Tribune didn’t take most of Barney Kilgore’s advice; their newspaper died within a decade. And this sage advice won’t alone be enough today; some of the business challenges of new technologies will require genuinely new thinking. But the man who invented modern journalism does have a lot to say to those who would save journalism from the threats it faces in our own time.
Richard J. Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, is the author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism, just published by St. Martin’s.