This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

Henry A. du Pont, on Coleman’s side, bought the Wilmington Evening Journal. In response, Alfred bought the Wilmington Morning News and six downstate papers and there followed a journalistic firefight that shredded state politics, the company, and the family. When Coleman’s political drive collapsed, Alfred ran a headline in his paper:

BANG! T. C. DU PONT’S BOOM BLOWS UP!

The explosive figure of speech was considered unforgiveable bad taste in a family that lived (and sometimes died) by gunpowder.

When Alfred got his second divorce in 1906, nothing appeared in any Wilmington paper, but there was a full account in the Philadelphia papers, an enduring pattern that continues to this day on sensitive Du Pont family or Du Pont Company news.

World War I made the company what it is today, but the postwar depression caught Alfred personally $10,000,000 in debt. He sold out his share of the company and the News to his family enemy, Pierre. The same faction of the family then took control of the company and of every daily paper in the state.

Over the years the family shaped itself by shrewd decision and careful selection of in-laws to govern the company in a more orderly fashion, ruthlessly weeding out incompetent members from company leadership in the most discriminating nepotism in the country. The Wilmington newspapers were only afterthoughts in this process and they settled down to conventionality and drab dignity.

In 1960, the executive editor, Fendall Yerxa, left to return to the New York Herald Tribune and a management consultant firm combed the country for an acceptable professional to take his place. They came across Black, who was ready to leave Savannah. The Morning News and Journal-Every Evening (as it was then called) were not very different from most papers: the owners insisted that within broad principles agreed upon beforehand, the editors were free to put out the best product they could.

Two other prominent American newspaper editors took a look and decided not to take a chance. One of them asked what would happen if he decided to endorse a Democrat. When he was told that this would be a decision for the board of directors he said good-by and went to the nearest hotel and “got stiff.” On the other hand, previous editors had not found the job intolerable and Reese, the president and editor, is a respected man in the trade. Black took the job.

The technical history thereafter was comforting. Their names were simplified to News and Journal. The typography was reformed; one paper had looked like the pre-war Herald Tribune and the other like the postwar Baltimore Sun. Some of the old content (SANDWICHES/ON MENU and MASONIC CLUB/AIDE TO SPEAK) disappeared to make room for harder news from new bureaus. An inbred staff was leavened with younger talent selected from other papers and from universities. In four years the combined morning and evening circulation went from 106,000 to 125,000. The 1963 revenue and profit were up 25 percent to the highest level in the papers’ history. What was more significant, the old picture of the Wilmington papers as Du Pont Company house organs began to fade. Younger editors even asked if the Du Ponts still owned the paper.

Despite professional appearances, inside troubles had begun in 1961. The starting point was Operation Abolition, the House Un-American Activities Committee film that was used as a set propaganda piece for right-wing causes. The Delaware State Police were showing the film under official auspices to school children, churches, and civic clubs. The paper editorialized against the official showings as dangerous precedent for political indoctrination by the police, using a factually dubious piece of work.

This stand brought severe pressures from the owners. An Un-American Activities Committee staff member and the narrator of the film, Fulton Lewis III, was a guest at the home of H. B. du Pont, where the papers were severely criticized by a group made up largely of right-wing Delawareans. The film later was shown at a program sponsored by Mrs. H. B. du Pont and Carpenter.

Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.