Newspaperman: Warren Phillips’ wonderful life

September 9, 2011, 3:54 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Each Friday we feature a different review. This week, Lawrence A. Armour reviews Newspaperman: Inside the News Business at the Wall Street Journal, Warren H. Phillips’ account of his decades atop the Journal and Dow Jones & Co.

FORTUNE — Warren H. Phillips joined The Wall Street Journal in 1947 as a copy editor, spent the next 18 years as a reporter and editor, was named executive editor in 1965, general manager in 1971, and held the title of chairman and CEO of parent Dow Jones & Co. when he retired in 1991. Sixteen years later, Rupert Murdoch bought the company for $5.6 billion.

Toward the end of Newspaperman, Phillips’ leisurely and entertaining stroll through his 45-year-career at the Journal, he takes a brief look at the new owner. The paper is deeper and stronger than ever, he concludes, thanks in part to Rupert Murdoch: “Whatever his sometimes controversial qualities, he believed in newspapers and was willing to invest heavily to build the Journal’s quality and competitiveness.”

Phillips revisits the Murdoch question in an epilogue, citing the “scandal that engulfed him and News Corporation (NWSA) in 2011 and, as this book went to press, caused several top executives to resign.” Phillips doesn’t mention that the departees included Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton, who had been a key figure at News Corp. when phone hacking was allegedly de rigueur at the company’s British tabloids.

Phillips sees no reason to fear for his beloved Journal, despite Murdoch’s pie-in-the-face moment while testifying before Parliament, reports of bad behavior at several News Corp. papers, and criticism that Murdoch has tarnished the Journal’s standing as the business publication of record by turning it into a general-interest paper in competition with the New York Times, “It’s debatable whether the paper’s long-treasured independence has been ‘lost,’” he writes in the epilogue, “but there is no sign to date that its integrity has been compromised.”

Newspaperman could have used some edits here and in a few other spots, but more about that later. First, full disclosure: I spent 26 years at Dow Jones, the first 20 as a writer/editor at Barron’s, the last six as director of communications, working part of the time with Phillips. It gave me a first-hand view of a very talented, hard-working, likeable, low-key guy. How low key? My wife and I bumped into Warren and his wife Barbara one Saturday morning in front of the Woolworth Building. They were standing in line with the rest of us civilians, waiting for the start of a tour of lower Manhattan.

A tad precocious, Phillips graduated high school at 14, did a year of “postgraduate” work at prep school and then enrolled in Queens College in New York City after Columbia, Cornell and a dozen other name-brand universities turned him down. He spent 1943 to 1945 in the army, returned to Queens College and graduated in 1947. The newspaper business beckoned him, and he signed on with the Journal after New York’s 10 other dailies rejected him. He read copy and wrote news summaries at the Journal, then left for a post in Germany with Stars and Stripes. He freelanced for the Journal from Germany, was rehired as a reporter, and in 1950 was sent to London where, at the ripe old age of 23, he was named bureau chief.

This was followed by a stint in New York as the Journal’s foreign editor, another in Chicago as managing editor of the Midwest edition, and a return to New York in 1957 as managing editor. In 1958, the guy who was turned down by the colleges and newspapers of his choice was named one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s 10 outstanding young men of the year. One of the other recipients that year was Henry Kissinger.

The ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were good years for business and great years for business journalism. Once a stodgy-looking, narrow-focused broadsheet with 100,000 readers, the Journal broadened its coverage under Phillips and added pages, sections and printing plants, all connected and fed by satellite. Circulation crossed two million, making it the largest newspaper in the country, and many days there weren’t enough pages to handle the advertisers who wanted in. New bureaus were opened around the world and new editions were launched in Asia and Europe.

Back home, Dow Jones went public. It bought a book company, hooked up with newsprint mills in Quebec and Virginia, acquired a chain of community newspapers, established an international newswire in partnership with the Associated Press, and created product for TV and desktop terminals. Sales and earnings soared, as did the stock and the company’s reputation. Dow Jones regularly appeared on Fortune’s annual list of the Most Admired Companies in America.

It’s all there in Newspaperman, along with great vignettes from all the history that Phillips witnessed during his decades at the Journal: the day Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to try to prevent integration in Little Rock; Russia’s big win in outer space; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Jack and Bobby Kennedy; the Vietnam War; Watergate and much more.

To his credit, Phillips also covers some of Dow Jones’ more celebrated missteps during his tenure. The company’s $1.6 billion investment in financial data provider Telerate went down the tubes after a nimble competitor called Bloomberg appeared on the scene. Dow Jones also left billions on the table by selling its 24.5% interest in Continental Cablevision too early, and was forced to shutter properties like Book Digest and the National Observer.

On the downside, the book has too much name dropping; come on, Warren, who wouldn’t want to take one of the most powerful people in publishing out to lunch or invite him to the Vineyard for a summer weekend? It lacks details of the behind-the-scenes activities that took place in the Journal trenches when a foreign correspondent was arrested and jailed in Iran; when the SEC discovered that a Journal market writer was sharing inside information with brokers; and other high-profile skirmishes the Journal got into in those days because it wasn’t afraid to stick its chin out.

Phillips gives proper credit to Barney Kilgore, Bill Kerby, Vermont Royster, and other pioneers who helped sculpt the paper. He doesn’t, however, devote much space to the Journal graduates who now hold top positions at places like Time Inc., Bloomberg, the New York Times, Washington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thomson Reuters and Fortune. Shame. It would have made two key points: that Warren Phillips was a good guy to work for and that he and the old Wall Street Journal played an important role in shaping how modern journalism is practiced.

–Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Time, Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated.

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