When I lived and worked for NBC News in London in the 1970s, The Sunday Times, along with strong black coffee, was part of my Sunday ritual, as my two sons ran and created youthful chaos through our large apartment on Upper Brook Street. I did not know that Harold Evans edited the paper of my choice. I did not care. All that mattered was that the writing was sharp, the editing crisp, and the investigative reporting first-rate. I enjoyed the comfortable layout of the paper, the easy-to-read type, the intelligent headlines, and the deft explanations of difficult, sometimes dense subjects. Years later, after I left London, I learned that Harold Evans edited the paper and had gone on to edit The Times of London, before coming to America where he held a series of editing jobs at major magazines and as publisher at Random House. It has been quite a career.
Evans' just-published book, "My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times" [Little, Brown], is the story of his life from its humble working-class beginnings in Manchester, England, to the top of his profession in journalism when it was a far different business than it is now. Yes, vanished times when men using hot metal type put the newspaper together and sent the thousands of words through the roaring press, a far cry from what happens today with computers. Then, the human touch was more important than spell-check and grammar-check software.
In 1940 Hitler was rampaging through Europe. Evans, then a pre-teen, became enamored with newspapers in an age when newspapers were king. Little did he know that his life's work was born when his youthful curiosity drove him to ask himself some questions. He wanted to know so much about what made a newspaper work, he asked himself the following: "How did they do it not once but differently every day?" … "How was all this information gathered?" … "How was everything fitted on a page with nothing over?" … "How did the photograph get taken on the battlefield, and how was it reproduced?" … "Who were these dazzling figures with notebooks sitting at the feet of Churchill and Roosevelt?" … "How were the newspaper's strong opinions determined?" These questions should be a mantra for all aspiring journalists and a reminder of why we became journalists in the first place.
He had to drop out of school at 16 and so he started working at newspapers where he started to discover the answers for himself. As a reporter and then an editor the answers helped him be the newspaperman he became and in some ways still is. He started working for a weekly in a mill town in the north of England. From seasoned editors, writers and reporters he learned everything he could about newspapers in the days before the Internet and instant news. He trudged through the streets of those dark and poor towns and when he could, he exposed the truth about how people lived, especially in an England recovering from World War II. And he learned well. In due time, he rose high in his profession. Importantly, along the way he developed a sharp and honest social conscience that allowed him to understand how words on paper could awaken people to the truth in their midst.
When he ascended to the editorship of the Sunday Times in 1967, he established a strong investigative unit with many talented reporters and writers. His first and possibly most famous campaign was to bring to light the plight of families affected by thalidomide used by pregnant women as a sedative. The use of the drug caused horrendous birth defects in children. The British courts did nothing to help the parents because the Ministry of Health blocked an inquiry into the effect of the drug on children, As long as there was no inquiry, there could be no compensation. To break that chain, Evans exposed the issue to the general public, publishing photos of the deformed children, and allowing parents to tell their stories. The British government, still slow to move toward reform, did everything it could to get in Evans' way. Eventually, the case went before the European Court of Human Rights. Evans won there and the British government eventually reformed the law to allow ordinary citizens to bring similar cases to court.
Today efficiency is probably at its peak in the news business. Harold Evans recognizes that change is inevitable. He talks about how quiet today's newsrooms are. But we are poorer for the loss of bells ringing, the shouts of copy, the smell of hot metal, the screaming presses pouring out the day's paper, and the hurly-burly of a newspaper before computers arrived in full force to change how the business operated. Now newsrooms resemble funeral parlors in more ways than anyone could have imagined when Harold Evans started out as a junior reporter. A friend told me that in a newsroom she frequents, the silence is deafening. People hardly ever talk to each other. They sit behind computers in well-lighted, antiseptic rooms and instead of whispering, shouting or even speaking in dulcet tones, they send each other e-mails, text messages and tweets. Harold Evans, as we all do, understands and accepts the changes in the business. It is hard enough to live with them but it does not mean we have to like them.