For more than 40 years, Harold Evans has been a giant figure in the world of print on both sides of the Atlantic. Starting out as a 16-year-old cub reporter in the north of England, Evans was still in his late 30s when he was named editor of The Sunday Times of London in 1967 for what turned out to be a 14-year reign. In crusades involving everything from air pollution to the detection of cervical cancer to the compensation of victims of thalidomide, Evans brought to his readers many stories and scandals that were officially denied or ignored, and he helped to redefine the role of newspapers, and their top editors, as agents for social change. In 1984, he moved to the United States, taking top jobs in magazines (Condé Nast Traveler, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News & World Report) and book publishing (Random House) before deciding to concentrate on writing books. Knighted in 2004 for his service to journalism, Sir Harold is married to another major force in publishing (and fellow British expat), Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and the founding editor of The Daily Beast, an online news site.
Knowledge at Wharton spoke recently with Evans about his latest book, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, and about print’s rich past and uncertain future in the new digital age.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You grew up in a working-class family. Your father worked for the railway and your mother ran a small grocery store. What inspired you to become a journalist?
Harold Evans: The original impetus was [walking] along a beach with my father in 1940 when I was 12. We came across these men who had been at Dunkirk the day before — soldiers totally bedraggled. I was very annoyed with him for spending time talking to them. They told him a story of deprivation and lack of equipment, and their morale was very bad, very low. They just had a terrible time escaping from the Nazis. But the newspapers were giving the completely wrong impression about what had gone on. They were all suggesting that these men, these defeated soldiers, these survivors, wanted to get back to Dunkirk as soon as they could. It wasn’t true. It was an epiphany for me.
I loved newspapers. I loved the Beachcomber feature, which is very funny — surreal English humor. I loved the Rupert the Bear cartoon. I didn’t take much notice of the real news other than a bit about football. And then as I got a little older, I realized that this epiphany had made me think about what newspapers did. I was very jealous. I wanted to sit at the feet of Winston Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt at these wartime conferences and realized I wanted nothing more in my life than to be a reporter — partly because of my epiphany about the gap between the truth and the generally accepted or official version of things and partly because I loved the marvelous mosaic of the newspaper, in which I could read a news story and look at Rupert the Bear and laugh my head off at Beachcomber.
English composition was my best subject. I still have the essays I wrote when I was 15, which actually are not badly written. So I became editor of the school magazine. I told everybody that I would be the best — I was only 15, for God’s sake. I realized from reading memoirs of Fleet Street that to be a reporter in 1943 or 1944 there was one requirement, which was to be able to write down what people said accurately in shorthand. My mother and father were not rich, but they got me into a girl’s college — a business college full of girls — and I became an expert shorthand writer. I still use it.
So I applied everywhere and I finally got a job on a weekly newspaper. I was 16.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you started out as a journalist, what were some of the principles you learned that have stayed with you throughout your career?
Evans: The first real scare was getting something wrong. So the first principle was getting things right. Simple accuracy, like getting somebody’s name right. I made a mistake once in transcribing the results of a dog show and all hell broke loose. And, of course, there is the need to be accurate about what people say — making sure when I did my shorthand that I had recorded exactly what they said. So the absolutely overriding requirement is for accuracy.
Second thing to know is that you will not succeed unless you persist. So I tell the story in My Paper Chase of being sent to visit a bereaved mother and father and it nearly killed me. I’m very shy and I had to persist all the time in telling myself I was not going to get anywhere by being shy. I had to ask difficult questions. If I got shouted at, then I had to be shouted at. And, similarly, when I went to an incident where the police were stopping us from getting in, one of the parts of the job was to persist and persist.
Third, and maybe it sounds rather highfalutin, is the need for integrity. As Immanuel Kant said, treat people as an end in themselves and not a means to your own ends. So learning to respect people. Not just simply exploiting their misery or their knowledge, but treating them with respect. My father was extremely clever, but uneducated, and I hated to see him not treated with respect.
A fourth element is recognizing the persuasive power of the press. My proudest moment early on grew out of an interview I had with a man who had been very badly treated by the government after going to World War II. He contracted tuberculosis. It was going to kill him and the government wasn’t giving him any compensation. I wrote a report that was sympathetic to him. I couldn’t put my personal opinion in but it said something about there seeming to be an injustice. And then a member of Parliament got him compensation. Now I don’t think my article was decisive, but it could have had an influence. So I realized that the press had a persuasive power apart from recording what had gone on.
Knowledge at Wharton: After you became editor of The Sunday Times, you set up the Insight team, which did some of the finest investigative journalism that has ever been done. What did you look for when you chose journalists for such assignments?
Evans: One of the things about investigative journalism is recognizing the difficulties of the search for truth because to get to the real truth you can meet many compromised stations on the way where you don’t thoroughly get the story. And to really want to persist and get the story and not just achieve an immediate effect — a rather sensational effect or make your name more well known — requires integrity.
So when I was appointing investigative reporters at The Sunday Times I was always looking for somebody who had the intelligence and the integrity, not somebody who simply wanted to expose someone’s private life or go halfway to explain a disaster. (Now obviously sometimes you can only go halfway to explain a disaster until you’ve found the real causes.)
I was very, very lucky that there had been a start in investigations before I got there. Also, given that I was coming from the provinces, I was regarded with some suspicion as a hick, so I had to prove myself. But the people I had there were really amazing. Much of my success as an editor was owed to putting them together in the right mix to create teams. A single individual might not have the necessary affinity for mathematics or for biotechnology or for whatever might be needed and the team would be more likely to have it.
Bear this in mind — my ability to put these teams together was taken to a new height because The Sunday Times had the resources. I could send somebody anywhere. I had a chairman and an ownership that wasn’t going to complain about exposing things — they didn’t complain even when they had a business interest. The moral leadership of Denis Hamilton and the Thomson organization was incredible. When I started the investigation into birth defects caused by thalidomide, the advertising director rang up and said, “You know, we have 60,000 pounds worth of advertising from that drug company.” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “It shouldn’t stop you.” And my chairman didn’t bat an eyelid.
It was very different for me earlier at The Northern Echo, a provincial newspaper, when I just had no money at all. On the other hand, I was able to get somebody like Kenneth Hooper [then a trainee reporter] to investigate that scandal [relating to the detection of cervical cancer] and in the end, by persistence and campaigning, we were able to get a screening program established that saved thousands of women’s lives. So once you have had that experience, and I had it in Manchester, too, trying to get something done about the black smog, you become kind of impatient with inertia and excuses. I don’t think of myself as a crusader, but I recognize that once you get into a story and you have found a defect, like nightdresses are going to burn children to death, you can’t just put that story in the paper. You have to do something about it.
So some people criticized this and I understand the reasons because you start off with a disinterested observer, then you get the passion to investigate it, turning into a crusader, and then do you go beyond the bounds of journalism and actually take a public life and a cause? And then do you lose your disinterestedness in it? So it is an interesting set of issues. I have tried to keep myself nonpartisan. At the same time, I have a high regard for people who go into public life. You only get abused. You only occasionally get satisfaction.
Knowledge at Wharton: If you were to look back on all your big stories, which one means the most to you and why?
Evans: That is a tough question. The stories directly affecting people’s lives are more obvious to see the connection. The cervical cancer story particularly means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of my real career. Clear air would have come to Manchester and England maybe five or 10 years later but it would have come. Cervical cancer tests would probably not have come for five years, so maybe 15,000 or 20,000 people were saved.
Compensation for victims of thalidomide would never have come because the legal system not only failed to give them satisfaction against a powerful corporation but was itself one of the problems — first in denying any kind of freedom of speech in the inquiry and second in not being prepared because the lawyers were ignorant. They didn’t do the research. So thalidomide probably gave me the most satisfaction because we had to fight the drug company and also had to take on the prevailing culture and establishment in all the papers, which excused the company. Why? Because they didn’t do the work, either. There was a lack of skepticism and a lack of curiosity. And then, to have found a reasonable case of truth only to be obstructed by the law, with the British courts clamping down for years.
And then Seán MacBride, the Irish statesman, whose political persuasion was far to the left of mine (I was a patriotic British nationalist), said, “Why don’t you go to the European Court of Human Rights?” I barely knew what the European court was even though I was a newspaper editor. But we were able to go to the European Commission of Human Rights, first of all, to win their recommendation that this case should proceed to the court, which is higher, and to go there and face 24 judges and find a repudiation of our own House of Lords and then to find the British government having to change the law.
So I am proudest first because of the emotional and moral satisfaction of helping these children, now adults by the way. And, second, because we got the law changed. The climax was in Parliament earlier this year, when the government got up and apologized.
Knowledge at Wharton: If you had the Insight team with you today, what would you have them working on?
Evans: We did a lot of exposing of embezzlement. So I’d like to think that if I had the Insight team in the last five years, say, that one of them, particularly on the business section, would have come to me and said, “The ratings agencies are giving very high ratings now to companies we think are not really sound.” I would have said, “I know, but show me and let’s get into it. Why are they getting triple-A ratings if they don’t deserve it?” That would be one story.
And, second, if I had just even listened, as I probably would have done, to some of the arguments about housing in this country and seen what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were doing, then the Insight team — and I really mean this — would have suddenly woken up and realized that the whole financial scene, including leverage in the banks, was in trouble. I know for certain that I would have campaigned on it week after week after week after week after week. “We are in danger,” I would have said.
Knowledge at Wharton: In 1973, you wrote Editing and Design: A Five-Volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout, which became the bible for journalists not just in the U.K., but in much of the world. How has the emergence of digital publishing changed the way you think about editing and design? What principles carry over from the past and what is new?
Evans: Well, the new technologies made what used to be very difficult very simple. Think of the physical process of editing or writing on paper: moving a paragraph, say, from where it doesn’t make sense up to where it does make sense or making a mistake in the second paragraph and having to pull the page out of the typewriter and the physical labor of pounding the keys again. All of that has been revolutionized by digital, so today’s journalists are enormously lucky. It is just incredibly easy.
Now the downside of that, since it is so easy to write and edit on the computer, is you get a huge amount of blather. You’ve only got to look at the blog sites. You get a lot of hot air. So the habits of conciseness may not be encouraged.
In terms of photography and design, which of course I am still very passionate about, the beneficial thing is that the ease of it is absolutely incredible. No need to spend hours, or even days, trying to get a new photograph back to the paper to develop — you just send it now from the scene. And then there is the ease of digital retrieval of library photographs. I had thousands of images to choose from, by hand — now there are millions of images and they are instantly available.
One of the downsides, of course, is that it is easier to manipulate photographs so that they say something that is not true. Regarding design and laying things out — it is slightly more difficult now in the sense of needing to learn the proper codes and systems. Also, the screen is more constricted than a newspaper page. So some of the drama of newspaper layout is not capable of being realized on the screen. Maybe we’ll get used to it.
Knowledge at Wharton: A study by The Poynter Institute estimates that since 2000 the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity. How can journalists still do investigative projects today? Put another way, do you see any successful business models that can support and sustain excellent journalism?
Evans: Many of the newspapers facing economic problems had been making big profits for years and years and years. I fault their managements because they didn’t have a fallback position for temporary difficulties or difficulties that might last two or three or five years.
On the positive side, new vehicles like The Daily Beast have a tremendous future. They already have the immediacy, the high-quality image-making and the ease of distribution. My wife recently convened the Women in the World summit. It was a fantastic conference, featuring reporting at its very best. You got a firsthand report from a woman raped in the Congo. A firsthand report of what female genital cutting does to women and the devastation it causes. And you got a marvelous report from Sunitha Krishnan, who has rescued women from brothels in India. Fantastic. Now, all of that was sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and by others. Tina went around and raised money. The Daily Beast and its own resources could never have done that. But here they brought to light something that really good newspapers could have done with their resources or if they had the conscience and the inclination.
So, the business model might be sponsorship by successful organizations with a public spirit. That happens already. And maybe some kind of merging between Web sites and print will occur. If you can get a newspaper printed in your home, there is a huge cost saving. I would like to see home printers running all the time. Put your palm print on one and your newspaper comes out on demand. Because I still think there is a great utility in print for a variety of reasons. The model would benefit from the immediacy of the Web and the recognition — perhaps very slow in coming — from the advertising industry, which is very conservative, that this is the way to do it.
As I said in My Paper Chase, what matters to me isn’t the vehicle, it is the journalism. I don’t care whether it is delivered electronically or by camel. I want to know what the journalism is.