Newspaperman

Inside the News Business
at the Wall Street Journal

By Warren H. Phillips

McGraw-Hill. 316 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Steve Weinberg


During his decades as a reporter, editor, and publisher at the Wall Street Journal, Warren H. Phillips played a significant role in transforming a limited-circulation, mediocre newspaper into a usually superb publication. Now in his mid-80s, retired from the newspaper since 1991, Phillips looks back in his memoir,

Newspaperman

, to explain the secrets of the successes and grapple in hindsight with some of his failures.

It takes awhile for Phillips to reach the good parts of the memoir because it is set up chronologically, beginning with his ancestors, his birth in New York City in 1926, his upbringing as an only child in the boroughs of the metropolis, his prodigy status that led to graduation from high school at 14, his military service as a teenager toward the end of World War II, and his higher education after the war.

Some of that chronicle is interesting. But most of the early chapters are crammed with relatives, friends, and foes who come and go quickly, often without any evident reason for their inclusion in what is meant to be a literary memoir. Even later in the memoir, people - by then some of them famous - come and go quickly, dizzyingly.

In the book's Introduction, Phillips criticizes name-droppers he has known, then pleads guilty to some of that in the pages to come. He justifies it by saying that including the famous might hold the interest of readers. He cites one of his Journal mentors, Barney Kilgore, as saying: "The easiest thing for the reader to do is to stop reading." The name-dropping made me want to stop reading numerous times, rather than holding my interest. The practice becomes more tolerable as the book progresses, as the sections about the rise of the Wall Street Journal's quality and influence are fascinating - for journalists and non-journalists alike.

Phillips found his passion for newspapering at age 11, when his father accompanied him on a tour of the New York Daily News. Phillips found everything about the atmosphere "subtly seductive." After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1945, still a teenager, he acted on his dream by finding a low-level copyboy job at the New York Herald Tribune. When he completed college two years later, Phillips applied for reporting jobs at each of 10 New York City general-circulation daily newspapers; every one of them turned him down. The Wall Street Journal, then a financial newspaper with a circulation one-twentieth of what it would eventually reach, hired Phillips. It was not his dream job, it seemed, but he made the best of the situation, reporting for the newspaper from Europe and attaining the powerful position of managing editor by age 30.

Having married young, Phillips realized he was not an attentive husband; he and his wife divorced quickly. The memoir reaches a vital point at the beginning of Chapter 9, when Phillips meets Barbara Thomas in London, where they were both employed. They have been married since 1951, have three daughters, and apparently hash out everything, including how to best run a newsroom. She is the main character in the memoir other than the author.

So it is especially poignant that Phillips, while running the newsroom, performed poorly in hiring and promoting women. To his credit, in hindsight, he tries to explain such a major blind spot. In that chapter, he drops plenty of names, but one of them works especially well. Noting that he had invited Gloria Steinem to the Journal to discuss the women's movement, he recalls what she said: "I get so sick and tired of all the stereotypes and stories about women in business sleeping their way to the top. What about all the men who marry the boss's daughter? Don't you call that sleeping their way to the top?" Phillips comments that Steinem "was right, about that and many other things."

My favorite chapter is the final one, as Phillips relates how he and his wife decided to start a small book-publishing company after his retirement from the Journal. He praises them both for the fiction and nonfiction books brought to print by Bridge Works Publishing Co., and rightly so.

In an epilogue, Phillips addresses the ownership of the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch, whose controversial purchase occurred four years ago. Many longtime Journal readers, myself included, believe Murdoch has presided over a diminution of the newspaper's quality. Phillips disagrees, praising Murdoch's passion and continuing financial investment. Hey, that is what a memoir should do: Express and document opinions. Phillips did not persuade me about the accomplishments of Murdoch's stewardship, but the case he presents is certainly interesting.

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books and former executive director of a journalism organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors.