There was one journalist in the 19 th century who stood out in the crowd and wasn’t afraid to criticize the companies he was writing about. In fact, the work of Henry Varnum Poor, editor of the American Railroad Journal from 1849 to 1862, caused dramatic changes in the relationship between companies and journalists. In retrospect, Poor can be considered the first true business journalist for his focus on forcing companies to provide accurate information about their financial performance to investors and readers.
Poor was born in Maine in December 1812 on a farm, and his father Sylvanus Poor was the town treasurer for Andover . Although he was the first in his family to attend college, Poor received a better education for his future career as a journalist by observer his brother John Alfred Poor build a railroad system through Maine . Although he also worked as a lawyer and a lumber merchant, Henry Poor made a name for himself when he moved to New York in 1849 to become editor of The Journal.
Poor’s 13-year tenure as editor of the newspaper and his subsequent activities in publishing the Manual of the Railroads of the United States set the standard for journalists writing about business for the next 50 years. Poor’s dramatic career as a business journalist is well documented by noted business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. through his 1951 master’s thesis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his 1956 book titled Henry Varnum Poor: Business editor, analyst, and reformer. Poor was Chandler ’s great-grandfather.
Before Poor arrived, the Journal struggled. Its owner left and went to California in early 1849 after gold was discovered. John Alfred Poor bought controlling interest in the paper and offered the job of editor to his brother. Henry Varnum Poor took his knowledge of railroad operations and changed the publication. The Journal had previously focused on promoting the superiority of the railroad to canals and turnpikes as a way to transports goods. But unlike other business newspapers of the era, the Journal didn’t merely recite statistics of fees and wages to transport goods across certain railroad lines. Instead, it functioned more like a traditional newspaper of the time period, with articles and reports about the industry. It also provided a healthy amount of engineering and technical information for those operating railroads.
Poor advanced the newspaper as the house organ of the industry, making its writing stand out from any other business paper of the 19 th century – and from any mainstream newspaper. He was the first journalist writing about business to apply statistical analysis to assess a company’s performance. While Poor spent a lot of time in the first few years of the publication advocating for the industry as well, he did so with a solid economic knowledge that explained the advantages of the railroad.
The business editor also paid particular attention to attracting investors of railroad stocks and bonds to the publication. Poor printed voluminous information – current crop production and population along the railroad’s proposed route, for example – about a railroad when it was trying to sell securities in an attempt to inform potential investors. Until 1850, Chandler noted, the media, including the Journal, had promoted railroad construction by wooing local governments. Talking to potential investors through the media was a new tack for any newspaper of the time.