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

The ending followed tradition. Black wanted to publish his letter of resignation, which said, in part: “I, for one, need no further evidence that the ownership wants the Morning News and Evening Journal operated as house organs instead of as newspapers.” H. B. du Pont vetoed the idea. After the first edition of May 19, carrying simply the news of his resignation. Black posted his letter on the news room bulletin board and the Philadelphia papers printed it before Wilmington did.

H. B. du Pont, at the time, denied Black’s assertion and said the newspapers “have never been and never will be operated as a house organ for any organization. Christiana Securities Corporation reaffirms their determination that the News-Journal Newspapers be operated independently with the objective of being a constructive influence in the community, in the state, and in the nation.”

Efforts to obtain further comment from the papers’ management during the preparation of this article were unsuccessful. H. B. du Pont was unavailable for comment. Robert Carpenter, when asked about his role in requesting changes in the newspapers’ content, said, “I wouldn’t want to comment on the subject.” Charles L. Reese Jr., president and editor of the newspapers, also declined to discuss it.

The depressing quality of the Wilmington episode is that it is not unusual. Few families are so powerful, organized, or dominant in their state as are the Du Ponts, but newspaperdom is filled with owners whose assumptions of their responsibilities are based on their non-newspaper businesses and whose journalistic enterprises are peripheral both to their personal experience and their daily attention. Unlike the McCormicks and the Ochses, such owners do not have to live with the day-to-day consequences of their decisions, nor face constituents whose information and opinions they oversee.

Decision-making in newspapers has a fundamental difference from that of most enterprises. Success in conventional business has a simple measure: survival and profit-making. Both are essential to newspapers but a paper that only survives and only shows a profit can be a failure as a newspaper. The newspaper is a community educational institution run for profit. The owner’s relationship to the news he prints is something like a university trustee’s relationship to reading material selected for archaeology courses.

There are hundreds of dailies in which editorials on certain subjects are as predictable as a catechism, whose news departments are designed to over-react or under-react to certain kinds of news, notably financial and political, not because of incompetence or sensationalism but because of the impulse to create a picture closer to the dreams of the ownership. Nor is it unusual for owners to believe that their paper’s staff is filled with radicals dangerous to the point of doubtful patriotism. Owners, typically, are conservative Republicans, and staffs—in journalism, as in most fields—tend to be Democrats.

If there were a tradition within newspapering to contain this distrust and tension between owners and staff, as there is in universities, it could result in a pluralism with the advantage of a checks-and-balances system. But there is no such tradition. Too many owners have been alienated too long from the social realities their staffs must perceive and report (and amid which the staff lives and owners generally do not). The Boston Transcript was perhaps the last metropolitan daily that lived within a closed elite. The power of both the Transcript and its elite were changed with the Depression. Millions of words in thousands of editorials will not bring back the mid-twenties.

There are continual legislative and vigilante attacks on freedom of the press. It will be an uncomfortable time when the owners of newspapers have to depend for preservation of this freedom on the understanding of constituents with whom the owners have been out of sympathy and, worse, out of touch, for thirty years.

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.