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Worldly power: the making of the Wall Street Journal.

Worldly Power: The Making of The Wall Street Journal.

Edward E.Scharff. Beaufort Books, $18.95. A Wall Street Journal reporter once theorized that it was impossible to write an entertaining book about the Journal, simply because it wasn't the kind of place where people threw spitballs, made memorable comments, or did colorful things. Fortunately, this theory is proven false by Worldly Power, which not only documents the history of Dow Jones & Co., but also manages to catch the personalities, gossip, newsroom plotting, and backstage bickering that have gone into the making of America's bestselling newspaper.

Much of the story concerns thelate Bernard (Barney) Kilgore, who had a vision for a national business newspaper aimed at a middle-brow audience back when the Journal was a sleepy publication written for specialty investors in New York and California. Unlike many journalists, Kilgore had an intuitive feel for how far he could push his readership without overloading them with the volume or the complexity of the information. The tight formula he devised for the Journal's front page was so awesomely successful that a later editor told Scharff, "Kilgore had given us a perfect thing. We thought, don't tamper with it, don't screw around with the formula.' Scharff, an editor at Institutional Investor, points out how unconventional Kilgore's ideas were for their time, although we take them for granted today. As late as the 1950s, business in America was mostly a local and regional affair. Most Americans spent their careers in the same town or small area where they were born and raised. Many young journalists, such as Warren Phillips, Dow Jones's current chairman, took jobs at the Journal only because they couldn't get hired by "real' newspapers.

Kilgore's good fortune was thatDow Jones was able to stay afloat --thanks largely to its financial news ticker--until reality caught up with his vision. Scharff does a big service by recognizing the role of the late Robert Feemster, the man responsible for the Journal's sales and marketing during its growth years after World War II. Feemster, who died in a 1963 airplane accident, was a pushy Sammy Glick type much disliked by the Journal's editorial staff, but his exceptionable business skill and hustle persuaded skeptical advertisers to support a newspaper that had no home town, no photographs, no sports, and a gray, unchanging front page. According to Scharff, Feemster was also the only Dow Jones executive to openly oppose launching the illfated National Observer, an editorially superb but financially disastrous weekly that resulted from Kilgore's boredom after the Journal had achieved huge success.

Scharff describes the mixed feelingsof arrogance and inferiority that mark life as a Journal reporter, which I can confirm from my own stint on the Journal's staff in the mid-seventies. On the one hand, there is a sense of practicing the craft of journalism at its best, of writing well-researched and thoughtful stories, and of having one's byline featured as one of only three front-page stories each day. On the other hand, there is a feeling of being on the outs with mainstream journalism, of still being tied to the infernal news ticker and the knowledge that stardom and clout will more likely go to reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the news magazines.

Worldly Power would have benefitedfrom a more detailed look at the Journal's current leadership and problems. The newspaper's circulation and advertising figures are flattening, its newsroom is top-heavy with editors, and The New York Times is seriously challenging its preeminence in business reporting. The book also has two stylistic flaws. Too many anecdotes include the qualifying word "reportedly,' even when the story appears to have been confirmable. And many of the author's opinions are softened by the word "perhaps,' as in, "Pageone editor . . . was perhaps the best job in all of newspaperdom.' Surely the author could have gone out on a limb on a few of these.

Overall, however, Scharff hasdone for the Journal what Gay Talese's Kingdom and the Power did for the Times. His book works extremely well as journalism history, as the story of an American institution, and as the biography of a talented iconoclast, Barney Kilgore. For all of his skill as a business journalist, Kilgore never invested in the stock market, had a diffident attitude towards personal wealth, and was suspicious of anyone who seemed overly concerned with getting rich. You wonder what he would have made of the yuppies who today are such numerous and worshipful readers of his newspaper.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Graulich, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1987
Words:751
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