One of my favorite media history books is Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism. Kilgore, the founder of the WSJ, was always innovating and at one point during the Great Depression began experimenting with communicating financial market concepts in a folksy style. He started a series of fictional letters addressed “Dear George”.
Our team has been exploring the idea of the difference between newsletters and email, and Kilgore fulfilled every element that makes for a great newsletter. This experimental format would go on to inspire the WSJ’s famous What’s News section that still leads the print edition.
First, Kilgore was doing Smart Brevity long before it was cool. Bullet points, summaries, key points, and more:
In February 1932, in his third year at the Journal, Barney Kilgore began a series of experiments with journalistic forms that would enable him to revolutionize journalistic content. Summary boxes, spotlighting key points in important articles, which Kilgore had pioneered in the Journal’s Pacific Coast edition, were picked up on the front page of the New York paper.
We also have to remember at the time financial journalism was completely inaccessible to the average reader (more Goldman research paper than the Morning Brew). He was thinking of his reader first:
Barney well understood the necessity for this sort of innovation: “I believe that if we can just get a little something in every day that every subscriber can read and understand he will think that he is getting his money’s worth.” This was a call for a dramatic departure from the way in which financial journalism had long been practiced, and “Dear George” more than heeded the call.
Continuing on this theme, straightforward, conversational language:
“Dear George” was an extraordinary breath of fresh air in the musty precincts of financial journalism, and newspaper journalism generally. It immediately did two things differently: First, it used simple language — just contrast its “what that does to a lot of people is plenty” with the introductory note the editors of the Journal placed atop the column, “in so far as the persons mentioned therein.”
Some incredible quotes here that every writer, journalist or content creator should heed:
This second point would become the focus of all of Kilgore’s work, and of most of his insights: Journalism was not about the writer, but the reader. As he put it in a letter home, “There are a lot of people apparently who don’t know everything and are willing to learn.
Finally, something that embodies the newsletter ethos, a direct reply:to functionality. Making the writer open to direct communication with their reader.
The first “Dear George” column ended with an invitation: “If you’re interested we can talk this over more later. Write me again when you can find the time.”
What’s amazing is 80 years later, as covered in this Nieman Lab piece, the WSJ implemented a policy that all newsletters needed a reply:to email: