100 Years Of The ‘Journal’

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In June 1984 I got an odd call from an editor at The Wall Street Journal. I had submitted an article that marked the one hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Charles Dow’s stock-market average. How do you know, the editor asked, that July 3, 1984, is the right date? What is your source?

I replied that my source was page 34 of Lloyd Wendt’s The Wall Street Journal, the definitive history of the newspaper, published in 1982. The editor asked me if I could send him a copy of page 34. I suggested that someone at the Journal ought to be able to verify the date. No, I was told, the Journal’s editorial offices could not easily locate a copy of the definitive history of the Journal.

I was reminded of this experience when, a few months ago, I read a fine recent book about the Journal, Edward E. Scharff’s Worldly Power (New American Library, 1987). Scharff describes his astonishment when he first confronted the company archives: “They consisted of a small pile of yellowed news clippings and some crinkled correspondence from a few early employees. . . . Later, I came to realize that the company’s indifference to its origins had been somewhat deliberate. Bernard Kilgore, the man who forged a great newspaper from the ashes of the 1930s, was not merely unconcerned with the newspaper’s earlier days, he was positively determined to eradicate their spirit. . . .”

I am pleased to report that the Journal’s editors are aware that July 8, 1989, will mark the one hundredth birthday of the newspaper that calls itself “the daily diary of the American dream.” Perhaps the editors awakened to the value of preserving an institutional memory; perhaps they merely grew tired of having outsiders remind them about key events in the newspaper’s history.

 

The man who founded the Journal, Charles Dow, was born in Sterling, Connecticut, in 1851 and, after more than a decade as a reporter, established in 1882 a financial news agency that used boy messengers to distribute business news to customers in New York’s financial district. Dow had two partners, Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser, but the men preferred the name Dow Jones & Company to Dow Jones & Bergstresser, so poor Mr. Bergstresser has been forgotten.

In November 1883 Dow Jones began to publish a two-page financial news bulletin, the Customer’s Afternoon Letter. This evolved into The Wall Street Journal, a four-pager first published on July 8, 1889.

Even before the Journal was founded, Charles Dow had invented the stock-market index that bears his name—the most famous and commonly used daily index that broadly measures the rise and fall of the market. Nine of the eleven stocks in Dow’s first average were railroads, but the composition of the index has changed with the composition of the economy. It was not until 1928 that the Journal published the first average of thirty industrial stocks comparable to the average that is calculated today.

Edward Jones sold his interest in Dow Jones in 1899, and Charles Dow died in 1902, at fifty-one. Before his death Dow sold the company for $130,000 to Clarence Walker Barren, a five-foot-five-inch, three-hundred-pound dynamo whose name survives in the weekly investment newspaper he founded in 1921.

In 1912, with the Journal floundering, Barren appointed himself editor. Under his leadership, circulation rose from seven thousand in 1912 to fifty-two thousand in 1928, and the newspaper grew from four pages to twenty.

Under Barron, too, the Journal spoke out more and more confidently as a defender of Wall Street against Congress. In March 1928 a typical editorial observed that “people who know nothing about credit, surplus bank funds, collateral, call loans or anything else germane to the question profess to be terrified when the Stock Exchange loans attain the figure of $4 billion or more. . . . Nothing can be so easily liquidated in this country as the speculative position in stocks.”

The liquidation, when it came, was not quite what the Journal had had in mind. But Barron was not around to see it. He had died in October 1928, leaving to his daughter, Jane Waldron Bancroft, 90 percent of the stock in Dow Jones & Company.

To the staff of the Journal in 1929 came a twenty-year-old graduate of DePauw University in Indiana, Bernard (“Barney”) Kilgore, who eventually transformed Charles Dow’s newspaper and became, in the process, one of the legendary editors of the twentieth century.

The Journal staggered through the thirties, with circulation falling below twenty-eight thousand. But Kilgore’s career got an unexpected boost. Asked to explain a complicated Supreme Court decision on the National Industrial Recovery Act, FDR told reporters, “Read Kilgore.” In 1935, at twenty-six, Kilgore became the Journal’s Washington bureau chief. In 1941, at thirty-two, he became its managing editor.