- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MY PAPER CHASE: TRUE STORIES OF

VANISHED TIMES

By Harold Evans

Little Brown, $27.99, 592 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Dobbin

As newspapers sink in today’s once unimaginable welter of disaster, Harold Evans still recalls in admirable detail what it was like to be young and learning a fascinating business back in the days when the word “blog” conjured up no more than an image of a child making pictures in mud.

The man who is now Sir Harold Evans, former editor of distinguished newspapers (The Times and the Sunday Times in London), straddles the world of past and present newspapers, succinctly summing up a newspaper as “an argument on the way to a deadline.”

As an editor, he moved across decades of British and American journalism, breaking such stories as children suffering the consequences of misuse of thalidomide, the perfidy of English spy Kim Philby, the creeping espionage of Anthony Blunt in Buckingham Palace and the assassination of a Sunday Times reporter.

He was an Englishman who came to love and try to understand the megacountry that was America, but the love of his life was and remains newspapers. “I am addicted to print,” he declares. He goes on to revel in what he sharply recalls as the wonderful noise of a newsroom in the days of the “iron monsters” that poured out hot type.

He remembers the big untidy room lit by fluorescent tubes, one end full of reporters “lassoed” by telephone wires hanging from the ceiling, “hotfooting” messengers and banks of copy takers clacking away on “sit up and beg Underwood typewriters.”

“The noise of the newsroom then?” he cheers, “Today’s tippity-tap at computers, like mice dancing on a keyboard, can never set pulses racing in the same way.”

In the other end of that chaotic room, he remembers the silence of cigarette smoke drifting from men in shirtsleeves, “curled up in prayerful posture” before the dominant feature of the room which was a schoolhouse clock with big Roman numerals. That was the territory of the copy editors, known in the United Kingdom as subeditors, who edit and check with an eye on the clock.

According to Mr. Evans, a good sub is “an artist in economy” who can reduce a story to half its length without “losing a single relevant fact or sacrificing good writing.” He adds that too many subeditors are prone to the lazy habit of simply lopping off the end of a story.

When Mr. Evans roams through the days when he was 16 years old and got his first newspaper job in the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, in northern England, he is telling the stories all reporters love best. Like being handed a bunch of papers by Mr. Middlehurst, a gruff editor who said only, “Asparagus - four copies an’ quick about ‘em, laddie!” The brand new reporter was frozen with fright until a kindly colleague translated with a chuckle, “Just write up these submissions separately as paragraphs.”

Light dawned on Mr Evans that “asparagus” had been decoded “as paragraphs.”

And there was the time he had to write a head for a story about a mother of five who had a “big pools win.” When he submitted “Mum wins big first time,” his effort was received with an editorial bellow of “Mum! We’re not the Daily Mirror!” And a sedate rewrite that read “Mother’s big pools win.”

He contends that nothing in working for newspapers, radio, television and Web sites in London New York and Washington matched the speed demanded of the staff of the Manchester Evening News in those post-World War II days.

“Newspapers were the way millions got their first inkling that we had been invaded by men from Mars; there were no cheap transistor radios, cell phones or Internet sites then. Reporters and subs had to operate like a souped-up Internet news service, producing eight editions in six hours and without the crutch of desktop computers.”

That is his memory, his summary and his accolade, and it is clear that none of Mr. Evans’ later journalistic triumphs transcend it.

He became the only journalist to hold the coveted editorships of The Times and the Sunday Times in London; did battle with another titan, Rupert Murdoch; and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. In the United States, Mr. Evans started over by becoming president of Random House.

It was very grand, but he doesn’t make it sound as full of riveting drama as the days when investigative reporting was his passion.

At 81, Mr. Evans is still going strong, writing histories of America, trying always to analyze the American character and what he found when he first came to the United States in the 1950s.

He was editorial director of the New York Daily News, the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News & World Report. Recalling his experience on the latter newsmagazine, he reports grimly the reaction of one Fred Drasner, the chief executive who was also a lawyer dedicated to advertising. When told Mr. Evans had written an editorial criticizing the powerful National Rifle Association, Mr. Drasner snapped, “You can’t do that. I just sold the NRA $30,000 of ads.”

Mr. Evans’ American dream was what he called Smalltown, U.S.A., where strangers were welcome, a place he encountered as a foreign student staying in Paris, Ill.

That was where he felt close to the old Midwest and those who had “turned the wilderness into America’s larder.” Those, he insisted, were the Americans who had inherited not just the land, but also the pioneer virtues lost in the big cities. To his mind, they were the real America.

Finally, he takes time in a book that could have benefited by some of his own editing to comment on the revolution now splitting the news business. He suggests grimly, “The question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism. In the end it is not the delivery system that counts. It is what it delivers.”

Many journalists will hope he is proved right in the 21st century.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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