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Hamptons Life

Sep 1, 2011 11:37 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Warren Phillips Tells What It's Like To Be A 'Newspaperman'

Sep 6, 2011 5:05 PM

The title of a book being published this month by McGraw-Hill is quite simple: “Newspaperman.” The one-word title, however, covers a huge amount of ground—not just in the long and successful life of author Warren Phillips but also the forces of history and the evolution of the newspaper industry during the last 60-plus years.

The subtitle is more explanatory: “Inside the News Business at The Wall Street Journal.” Mr. Phillips should know. After serving in the Army during World War II and graduating from Queens College, he began looking for a job in journalism. There were 11 daily newspapers in New York City at the time, and it was the 11th, the Wall Street Journal, owned by the Dow Jones Company, that gave him a try.

When Mr. Phillips retired in 1991, he was the chief executive officer of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal. His book is not only his history but that of one of the world’s best newspapers.

“Over the years people had suggested that I do it, and my answer always was that I didn’t have the time,” Mr. Phillips said during lunch at the Fairway restaurant at the Poxabogue Golf Center in Bridgehampton, which is near his home. “Even when I retired from the newspaper, my wife and I went into the book-publishing business, and I didn’t have time either. I also thought, ‘Who gives a damn? When you’re gone you’re history.’”

But after some thought, and time, Mr. Phillips started to come around to the idea of writing about his experiences in media.

“Then in more recent years when I started to think back to the past and a lot of the things that are issues in journalism and in the general media today we dealt with then,” he said, “I thought it might be useful to people to see how the media works behind the scenes, and how the performance of the press came to be what it is.”

“Newspaperman” reminds one of a memoir by another East End resident and newspaper executive, “A Good Life” by Ben Bradlee, in that it recounts the author’s participation as a reporter and editor in many national and world events spanning decades. Mr. Phillips recognizes his good fortune in that for much of his career he was in the right places at the right time.

“It was a golden age for journalism,” he said. “After WW II, with communications getting so improved and bringing countries closer together so that what happened in one place had an effect on the other, was a period of tremendous change and history in the making. During that period, newspapers and media in general did really improve. The quality of newspapers in the 1930s and ’40s was really not that great, but it was much better afterward. The public’s appetite for news was vast and many people in this industry worked very hard to satisfy that appetite with excellent journalism.”

What is refreshing about this memoir is that Mr. Phillips is anything but self-centered. While he held positions of increasing significance at WSJ—and by extension, in the industry that provided information to an emerging global audience—he writes about his experiences in a direct but self-effacing way, eager to share and give credit to others.

“I never believed in the first-person singular in a newsroom or any organization,” Mr. Phillips said. “In this business, no one really accomplishes anything without a lot of other people. Jim Riordan, who was the longest serving member of the board of directors while I was there, read the book and told me, ‘When I was reading about the people around you, I was thinking of George Washington’s first cabinet.’”

What underlies Mr. Phillips’s passion for his occupation can be found early on in his book, after he has left Germany: “It has often been said that journalism offers a front-row seat on history. As I returned to New York I reflected—and have ever since—on what a marvelous opportunity the journalist is offered in continuing his or her education throughout life. Reporting and researching each new story provided an education in new subject after new subject ... I actually was being paid while I reaped such benefits. Surely, I thought, there are few other vocations where one is paid to keep on learning, to keep broadening one’s knowledge.”

Mr. Phillips thoroughly enjoyed his time as a globe-trotting reporter, but he couldn’t pass up a golden opportunity during that golden age. At only 30, he became the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. He remained in executive positions at the newspaper and the company for the next 30-plus years.

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