Sevellon Brown

Inducted: 1976
Born: 11/23/1886
Died: 12/28/1956

Sevellon Brown, the publisher of the Providence Journal and The Evening Bulletin, was known as a person who expected great things from the American press and did everything in his power to achieve them. He founded the American Press Institute at Columbia in 1946 to improve the professional, leadership, and technical skills of those in the news media. “Your boss,” he used to tell his reporters, “Is the guy who pays a nickel for the paper.” Brown was in touch with his reporters on a 24-hour, seven-day basis, always appearing when news broke fast. It was on his ideas and initiatives that The American Press Institute was founded. “We must have better newspapers if the force of public opinion, the greatest force in the civilized world today, is to be given the vision to find the solutions of problems that must be solved if civilization is to survive,” Brown said at the opening of the Institute. Brown urged newspapers to develop their own editorial staff instead of using syndicated columnists who write opinion pieces for newspapers to paste up and print.

 Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on November 23, 1886, and worked as a reporter for the Washington bureau of the United Press, The New York Star, and the New York Herald during the heyday of newspaper reporting. However, his newspaper career was interrupted by America’s entry into World War I in April 1917. Enlisting in the military, he was eventually promoted to ordnance corps captain. He wrote a book, The History of Ordnance in the World War, that is considered a classic in its field.

When Brown’s father-in-law, David S. Barry, retired from his position as the Journal’s Washington correspondent, he recommended to Journal president Stephen O. Metcalf that Brown replace him. Metcalf agreed, and a year later, Brown moved to Rhode Island in 1920 to serve as managing editor. His first task was reorganizing the news staff of the Journal and the Evening Bulletin. When he took over, most staff members worked six and seven days writing and gathering news for both newspapers. Brown expanded the reporting staff and set up a separate staff for each paper. Both papers began to feature stories about social justice that usually ended well under Brown’s influence. He was promoted to publisher in 1942.

Under Brown’s tutelage, the paper’s coverage was broadened to include art, music, and poetry. He treated Rhode Island as a “city-state” and staffed the paper with reporters and bureaus to cover every aspect of local and state news. He also established seminars attended by Journal staffers who related to political leaders in their respective areas. Brown firmly believed that an informed citizenry was the most significant contribution of a journalist.

Journal reporter Ben Bagdikian and Brown won a Peabody Award in 1951 for their “most exacting, thorough and readable check-up of broadcasts” of Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, and Fulton Lewis, leading TV and radio commentators. Bagdikian later described the Journal as one of the better papers, besides their pro-Republican and anti-union editorials. Bagdikian was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2016.

Brown married the former Bonney Barry in 1919, and they had two sons, Sevellon Brown III, who became publisher of the Journal, and Barry.

In 1948, Brown was appointed a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations Freedom of Information Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also a member of the Advisory Council of the Pulitzer Prize Board and a director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He was elected several times as chairman of the advisory board of the American Press Institute. He received two honorary college degrees: a Lit. D. from Bates College in 1946 and an LL.D. from Brown University in 1952. 

The New England Society of News Editors presents an annual award to an individual for outstanding journalism in New England. The award is named after Sevellon Brown, publisher of The Providence Journal-Bulletin, who founded the American Press Institute, was a fellow of the Academy of New England Journalists, and the past president and founder of the New England Associated Press News Editors Association (NEAPNEA).

He retired from the Journal in 1954 and died on December 28, 1956, at the age of 70. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1976.

For additional reading:

The Providence Journal: 150 Years, by Garrett D, Byrnes, 1980.

The Story of Ordnance in the World War, Sevellon Brown, Byron Press, 1921.

These Plantations, foreword by Sevellon Brown, Roger Williams Press, Jan 1, 1937.

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