My Paper Chase
The energetic memoir of Harold Evans, a newspaperman who refuses to sing the blues.
Read any good newspapers lately? Read any newspapers lately? If not, hereâ€™s the scoop: blogs, not banner headlines, swarm the digital frontierâ€™s horizon, and the fourth estate has its pixels in a bunchÂ over the future of print media.
Columnists spill ink weekly (well, not at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has moved online, or the Denverâ€™s Rocky Mountain News, which has gone dark) bemoaning the bad economy, Craigslist, the microscopic attention span of Millennials â€“ anything that will explain their industryâ€™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 journalistsâ€™ chorus, its Harold Evans. Mercifully, My Paper Chase, a refreshing memoir by the venerated editor of Londonâ€™s Sunday Times and champion of pre-Thatcher British investigative journalism, jettisons hand-wringing over the â€śvanished timesâ€ť of its melancholy subtitle for one manâ€™s unquenchable enthusiasm for his lifeâ€™s work. â€śI never conceived this memoir as a valedictory to a vanishing world,â€ť Evans, now 81, writes â€“ for this son of a middle-class railroad man, the importance of unbiased, responsible, free-flowing reportage is self-evident. If itâ€™s not self-sustainble, thatâ€™s a problem for the accountants.
Not that Evans doesnâ€™t wax poetic about â€śhot metalâ€ť typesetting, the old-fashioned, PC-free process by which metal slugs, filled with ink and pressed on paper, became the daily newspaper. Consider the authorâ€™s first encounter with Linotype machines: â€ś[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 â€“ gears, pulleys, camshafts, levers, and bars. A man crouched in communion at the foot of each contraption.â€ť If â€ścommunionâ€ť sounds religious, it is â€“ Evans, a self-starter who battled British educationâ€™s stodgy promotion system, Oxbridge classism, and Northern Englandâ€™s dodgy bus schedule to land his first newspaper job, is an acolyte of â€śthe aromatic urgency of hot metal marinated with printerâ€™s ink.â€ť Why would a man who macheted his way to the top of Fleet Street â€“ home to Londonâ€™s â€śquality papersâ€ť for much of the 20th century â€“ write about his calling with less-than-ecclesiastical fervor?
â€śMy Paper Chaseâ€ť 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: Evansâ€™s â€śInsightâ€ť investigative team broke the Kim Philby spy scandal, pursued settlements for limbless thalidomide victims (and shone a light on Britainâ€™s glacial civil courts), and, in the face of a libel suit, pushed Northern Irelandâ€™s IRA â€śtroublesâ€ť under the noses of an indifferent public. â€śA newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline,â€ť Evans writes of his muckracking, side-taking, â€śstraightforwardâ€ť editorial style. â€śIf there isnâ€™t any argument, thereâ€™s not much of a newspaper.â€ť
But if the power of the press should start arguments, it doesnâ€™t guarantee winning. Evans was pushed out of the Times in 1982 after spats over editorial independence with uberpublisher Rupert Murdoch, journalismâ€™s once-and-future bogeyman. If the dismissed editor, who nearsightedly sided with Murdochâ€™s guerrilla campaign against press unions, really thinks â€śevery British newspaperman is in [Murdochâ€™s] debt,â€ť itâ€™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 Styronâ€™s â€śDarkness Visible,â€ť Colin Powellâ€™s â€śMy American Journey,â€ť and a memoir by â€śa community organizer named Barack Obama.â€ť But this dazzling â€śsecond actâ€ť canâ€™t hide Evansâ€™s newspaper jones. â€ś[A]n opportunity to return to journalism on the scale of the Sunday Times,â€ť Evans writes of his Random House entrĂ©e â€“ a curious comment about one of the worldâ€™s largest book publishers from the writer of seven books himself. This man just canâ€™t see the forest or the trees, but the newspapers they could become â€“ 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 heâ€™d rather be sweating it out with a copy editor five minutes to deadline than reminiscing with the president about the meager advance for â€śDreams from My Father,â€ť Evans remains upbeat. â€śWhat we have to find is a way to sustain truth seeking,â€ť he writes. â€śIf we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.â€ť â€śWill enterâ€ť â€“ not â€śentered,â€ť or â€ścould have entered,â€ť or â€śshould have entered.â€ť What dailyâ€™s editorial page dares write with such optimism? While not short on war stories, â€śMy Paper Chaseâ€ť refuses nostalgia. Tomorrow is, after all, another day, and brings a new edition.
Justin Moyer is a freelance book reviewer in Washington, D.C.