Read any good newspapers lately? Read any newspapers lately? If not, here’s the scoop: blogs, not banner headlines, swarm the digital frontier’s horizon, and the fourth estate has its pixels in a bunch over the future of print media.
Columnists spill ink weekly (well, not at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has moved online, or the Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which has gone dark) bemoaning the bad economy, Craigslist, the microscopic attention span of Millennials – anything that will explain their industry’s woes without reference to its fear of innovation. News itself is depressing enough. Must we now suffer down-in-the-mouth news about the news?
If anyone could be expected to join this existential journalists’ chorus, its Harold Evans. Mercifully, My Paper Chase, a refreshing memoir by the venerated editor of London’s Sunday Times and champion of pre-Thatcher British investigative journalism, jettisons hand-wringing over the “vanished times” of its melancholy subtitle for one man’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his life’s work. “I never conceived this memoir as a valedictory to a vanishing world,” Evans, now 81, writes – for this son of a middle-class railroad man, the importance of unbiased, responsible, free-flowing reportage is self-evident. If it’s not self-sustainble, that’s a problem for the accountants.
Not that Evans doesn’t wax poetic about “hot metal” typesetting, the old-fashioned, PC-free process by which metal slugs, filled with ink and pressed on paper, became the daily newspaper. Consider the author’s first encounter with Linotype machines: “[T]he floor was filled with long lines of iron monsters, each seven feet high, five feet wide, decked out with an incomprehensible array of moving parts – gears, pulleys, camshafts, levers, and bars. A man crouched in communion at the foot of each contraption.” If “communion” sounds religious, it is – Evans, a self-starter who battled British education’s stodgy promotion system, Oxbridge classism, and Northern England’s dodgy bus schedule to land his first newspaper job, is an acolyte of “the aromatic urgency of hot metal marinated with printer’s ink.” Why would a man who macheted his way to the top of Fleet Street – home to London’s “quality papers” for much of the 20th century – write about his calling with less-than-ecclesiastical fervor?
“My Paper Chase” is the Gospel of Evans, and the gospel makes juicy copy. After a start covering weddings and funerals for the tiny Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, Evans served time at regional papers and as a reporter in America and India before landing the top spot at the Sunday Times in 1967. His 15-year tenure brought a lot of news fit to print: Evans’s “Insight” investigative team broke the Kim Philby spy scandal, pursued settlements for limbless thalidomide victims (and shone a light on Britain’s glacial civil courts), and, in the face of a libel suit, pushed Northern Ireland’s IRA “troubles” under the noses of an indifferent public. “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline,” Evans writes of his muckracking, side-taking, “straightforward” editorial style. “If there isn’t any argument, there’s not much of a newspaper.”
But if the power of the press should start arguments, it doesn’t guarantee winning. Evans was pushed out of the Times in 1982 after spats over editorial independence with uberpublisher Rupert Murdoch, journalism’s once-and-future bogeyman. If the dismissed editor, who nearsightedly sided with Murdoch’s guerrilla campaign against press unions, really thinks “every British newspaperman is in [Murdoch’s] debt,” it’s a disappointing case of a dog not biting the hand that beats it.
Exiled to Manhattan, Evans served as founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler, then ran Random House, where he published William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” Colin Powell’s “My American Journey,” and a memoir by “a community organizer named Barack Obama.” But this dazzling “second act” can’t hide Evans’s newspaper jones. “[A]n opportunity to return to journalism on the scale of the Sunday Times,” Evans writes of his Random House entrée – a curious comment about one of the world’s largest book publishers from the writer of seven books himself. This man just can’t see the forest or the trees, but the newspapers they could become – Evans devotes 500 pages to his life before and during his Times editorship, but less than 50 to his life after it.
Still, even if he’d rather be sweating it out with a copy editor five minutes to deadline than reminiscing with the president about the meager advance for “Dreams from My Father,” Evans remains upbeat. “What we have to find is a way to sustain truth seeking,” he writes. “If we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.” “Will enter” – not “entered,” or “could have entered,” or “should have entered.” What daily’s editorial page dares write with such optimism? While not short on war stories, “My Paper Chase” refuses nostalgia. Tomorrow is, after all, another day, and brings a new edition.
Justin Moyer is a freelance book reviewer in Washington, D.C.