One-section newspapers, less is more, and other lessons in life

April 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal Opinion section yesterday by former Journal publisher, L. Gordon Crovitz called “Making Old Media New Again.” The impetus is a new book by another former Journal personage, Richard Tofel, called “Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal and the Invention of Modern Journalism” which is about Barney Kilgore, who became Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal in 1941 and thought deeply about how audiences use media, particularly newspapers. 

[So - if you're keeping track - a piece in the Wall Street Journal by a former Wall Street Journal person, about a book written by a former Wall Street Journal person, about another former Wall Street Journal person. Clearly, this is how mainstream media has remained in control over the years. But, this is not important, right now.]

Barney Kilgore was an early proponent of making newspapers less about what happened and more about  the meaning of what happened. He proposed news analysis, as opposed to simply news. He was driven in his view by an understanding of the impact that technology could have on how readers used newspapers. The Wall Street Journal itself had started life as a paper to report news and stock prices to investors. In time, radio and the ability of other newspapers in other cities to carry the same information undermined the Journal’s unique proposition, and its circulation, and it had to change. News was becoming real time. Newspapers would have to offer additional value. So, Mr. Kilgore launched the punchy, “What’s News”, on the Journal’s cover, then provided insight and outlook deeper into the paper. This (along with other innovations, I’m sure) helped circulation grow.

The need for media to adapt to new technology resonates strongly today. That said, in a world that has known CNN for over 25 years the notion of offering “news analysis” as opposed to simply “news” is wide-spread and well-understood. Unfortunately, it is not doing much to boost the resistance of traditional media in an age when technology has grown more virulent and toxic to it.

But, Barney Kilgore may have offered another prescription worth considering, which is less is more. Asked for help by the New York Herald Tribune, he wrote a memo in 1958 advocating the “compact model newspaper”. He proposed a one-section paper, with a longer paper on Sundays, arguing that less is more because readers value their time. The Herald Tribune did not take his advice and it went under in 1967.

Oh, that Barney Kilgore was still writing memos today. Less is more is a great unrecognized truth of media. It is perhaps the great unrecognized truth of media. It is still so unrecognized that the history of the Internet – which is recent history – has been dominated by the rise and fall, and uncertain future, of portals and web communities choked by the desire to be more not less. In nearly every case, they are losing that battle versus expectations.

Barney Kilgore died in 1967, but when I arrived in New York City out of college in 1979 the Wall Street Journal was still a one-section newspaper. I’m going to guess that it was a hold-over from the wisdom of Mr. Kilgore’s era. But, gradually, as Mr. Kilgore’s legacy lost its grip on the newspaper, the Journal added sections and features appealing to a broader and broader audience. Today, it’s owned by News Corp, which has been transparent with its intentions to enhance the Journal’s general-interest appeal. The News Corp prescription is about saving the Journal now. It is about making it more of what it has become over 25 years, anyway, and we should accept that News Corp will be better at that job than the previous owners.

But, how would life be different today for the Wall Street Journal if it had remained a one-section financial newspaper? In the global, inter-connected, hedge-fund, financial derivatives market we live in today how might the lessor Wall Street Journal have prospered? Would The Street.com matter to the financial world today? Would Dow Jones have spent $500 million to acquire Marketwatch? Would CNBC be a factor on cable TV? Would a subscription to WSJ.com cost $250 a year, like it or not, chumps need not apply? 

If Barney Kilgore was offering prescriptives today I suspect it would be along the same lines: less is more. Focus on core competencies. Add value to those competancies. He would be warning that technology was not simply capable of altering the roles of media outlets, it was capable of destroying them in the absence of distribution and productions costs. The more you try to become the more you must defend and the more it costs.

The game to watch today for fans of these important questions is Google. What will it become? Big is not at issue. Google is big. Big is very possible when you believe less is more. If you doubt that, point your browser to the Google home page. Whatever else Google may be doing in the world, at home it is still only one thing: fast reliable search. A powerful force protects that core competency and the culture that goes along with it from countless temptations, many of which Google has tossed back in the last several months. But the temptation always remains to do more…To be more…To see oneself not as a fast reliable search company, but as the future of all media.

Old media becomes new media? Only if we can break old habits. We might benefit by having Barney Kilgore still here to comment on it.

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