More Good Times Than Bad for Sir Harold Evans

One of the most impressive things about Sir Harold Evans is that while he ran many newspapers, started a magazine and presided over the largest U.S. publishing house, people in the audience at the December 14 Book Night also got the sense that Evans is a real reporter. The kind of reporter who gets his hands dirty to get a story and relishes seeing the after effects of the reporting for the public good, as when he reported on preventable cancer treatments for women in Great Britain, which he called his most satisfying journalism experience of all time.

Sir Harold Evans, or as he said he’s referred to in the U.S. as simply “Harry,” came to the OPC to discuss his book, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times. OPC President Allan Dodds Frank served as interlocutor.

Evans left school and started working in journalism at 16 as Britain was being bombed by the Germans. He said he was “terrified to talk to people.” One of his first reporting jobs was to knock on doors and get a photo from a family of a dead soldier.

“I couldn’t do it at first, but then I knocked on the first door and the family who answered invited me in for a cup of tea,” Evans said. “It was marvelous. I wrote 11 columns a week and got used to knocking on doors and asking questions.”

Evans held up the jacket of his book – the photo was of a much younger Harry and when newsrooms used typewriters – and said, “I’m sorry he couldn’t be with us today.” He said the picture was an accident, taken as he was about to say something.

When Evans was asked about the news business today, he gave counter-intuitive responses that were a breath of fresh air from the doom-and-gloom that has hovered over the industry the past few years.

Frank asked what Evans thought about the change in the newsroom atmospheres from the days of typewriters when newsrooms were the center of organized chaos, to a computerized bullpen that feels like a “regional insurance office.”

“Maybe the noise was distracting because it was so intense,” Evans said. “Today the consolation is you don’t have to return a typewriter carriage, you don’t have to count words and spaces.”

Frank quipped, “Maybe it’s easier to come in from the bar and finish your story.”

OPC member Seymour Topping asked Evans about Rupert Murdoch, and what he sees as an improvement (with the exception of the editorial page) of The Wall Street Journal since Murdoch acquired the paper in 2007.

Evans, who wrote the 430-page book, Good Times, Bad Times in 1984 as a long rejoinder to his being fired by Rupert Murdoch said the Journal and Murdoch have gone through positive transitions.

“To me, he’s redeemed himself,” Evans said. To an earlier question posed by Frank, Evans said, “I’ve had to reassess my point of view on Murdoch. The trade unions [in Great Britain] wouldn’t let computers in the building. Murdoch defeated the unions in a way we never could. As Murdoch said, ‘the carnivore liberated the herbivores.’ He freed the British press.”

Evans said the hardest job he’s ever had to do in his life was keeping track of a running story and that the most important aspect of being an editor is to choose the right people. “It’s hard to get it right. Today I fear that once they go to J-school, they get a homogenized point of view. Chemistry is so very very important. You can put brilliant A, B, C and D types together, but if they hate each other, it doesn’t work. Choose the right team and then give them freedom.”

Evans became an American citizen in 1994. He said he fell in love with America and the freedom and respect given to journalists here. Still, he said that journalism here missed reporting on the Iraq war, sub-prime mortgages and the bribing of senators. “We don’t know what we’re missing,” he said. “If somebody had blown the whistle. Imagine. We’d all be better off and we’ll be worse off in ways the public doesn’t even realize. I hate it.”

When OPC Board Member Toni Reinhold asked where have American newspapers gone wrong in their business strategy, Evans said it’s the profit model that has driven them into the ground. “Expecting an annual profit of 21 to 23% is a formula for disaster,” he said, but also conceded that American newspapers have been overstaffed for a long time.

Former OPC President Larry Smith asked if newspapers can retool themselves in the coming crucial years.

“Everybody talks ‘either/or,’ but you can do both,” Evans said. “I see a future for print-on-demand newspapers and charging for the web if there’s extra value.” Then he paused and said, “I carry a health warning: this man is a permanent optimist.”