- Historic Sites
100 Years Of The ‘Journal’
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
Kilgore took over a paper that had grown shockingly dull. As the world reeled toward war, a typical Journal story would begin, “The Navy Department yesterday sought to buy 3,550,000 pounds of copper but received bids for but 2,100,000 pounds.”
Kilgore insisted that the Journal’s reporters pay more attention to the interests of the general reader. “Don’t write banking stories for bankers,” he said. “Write for the banks’ customers.” He also insisted on crisp writing. “If I see ‘upcoming’ in the paper again,” he warned, “I’ll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”
Most important, Kilgore insisted that the Journal must be a national newspaper. The United States was not merely one nation; it was one great business market. The Journal’s job was to report the news that mattered to businessmen everywhere.
To his vision of what the Journal should be, Kilgore added a vision of how it should look. Before Kilgore, the front page of the Journal had been, as Scharff writes, “a mishmash of turgid news stories, brokerage ads, and, every now and then, a photograph. . . .” By the end of the 1940s, readers saw the famous front page we see today: “six clean columns of type, each distinct in purpose from top to bottom.”
On the business side Kilgore, who became president of Dow Jones in 1945, was strongly supported by the owner, Jane Bancroft, and, after her death in 1949, by her daughters, Jessie Cox and Jane Cook. When Joseph P. Kennedy tried to buy Dow Jones after Jane Bancroft’s death, he received a rebuff that must have warmed Clarence Barron in his grave. “Grandfather’s company,” said Jessie Cox, “is not for sale to anybody— at any time, at any price.”
When Kilgore died of cancer in 1967, the headline in the Journal was simple: BERNARD KILGORE DIES; MADE A NATIONAL DAILY OF WALL STREET JOURNAL. Under Kilgore circulation rose nearly fortyfold—from 32,000 to 1,132,000. After Kilgore took over as managing editor, the annual earnings of Dow Jones & Company rose from $211,201 to more than $13 million.
In recent years the Journal’s editorial page has played a role in national policy debates. This phase of the Journal’s institutional life unfolded under the leadership of Robert L. Bartley, a graduate of Iowa State University who took over as chief of the editorial page, at thirty-four, in 1972.
When Kilgore became managing editor in 1941, he took over a paper that had grown shockingly dull.
As Scharff tells the story, before Hartley became editor, he had met Jude Wanniski, a writer for The National Observer, a weekly newspaper that Dow Jones published from 1962 to 1977. In 1972 Bartley invited Wanniski to join his team of editorial writers. When Wanniski protested that he didn’t know how to write editorials, Bartley reassured him: “All it takes is arrogance.” Wanniski was a coal miner’s son who had developed a keen interest in economics, but his lack of formal economic training did not stop him from forming strong opinions.
In Washington in 1971 Wanniski had met a thirty-year-old economist from the University of Chicago named Arthur Laffer, then working as an assistant to George Shultz, President Nixon’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. Laffer held a number of highly unorthodox views, views that challenged the conventional wisdom of both the liberal disciples of John Maynard Keynes and the conservative disciples of Milton Friedman.
Late in 1974 Wanniski and Laffer met for a now-famous dinner where, according to Wanniski, Laffer sketched on a paper napkin a bell-shaped curve that showed that low tax rates might produce for the government the same amount of revenue as high tax rates.
“I just went wild over that curve!” Wanniski said later. The Laffer Curve meant that the United States could enjoy a big tax cut without running up an enormous government deficit—if the world worked the way that Arthur Laffer said it worked.
In time Wanniski converted Hartley to Laffer’s ideas, which became known as “supply side” ideas because they emphasized the effect of tax rates on the supply of goods and services. Walter Heller, the chief economic aide to John F. Kennedy and a prominent liberal economist, said the Journal’s “editorial page was a rocket booster for Supply Side theory. Supply Side was hatched, incubated, nurtured, and given wing there. . . . There was an absolute campaign to put it on the map.”
Though Wanniski left in 1978, the Journal under Hartley has remained a vigorous conservative voice. Some of my literary friends tell me that they read the Journal’s editorials to find out what people in business are thinking. I reply that they might as well read Pravda to find out what the Russian people are thinking. In my experience, few business executives are ideologues. Perhaps that is because, in their business lives, they spend much of their time wrestling with uncertainties.