This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. If you have suggestions for future Q&As, or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.
Hometown and Current Location: Manchester, England; New York
What Makes Him a Thought Leader: Evans worked his way up to be editor of the London Times from 1967 to 1981, and later became founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler, editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, and president and publisher of Random House. His campaigns helped overturn the death penalty in England, and brought attention to children impacted by thalidomide.
What He’s Doing Now: Evans is the editor-at-large for The Week magazine. He has written numerous books, but his most recent is called My Paper Chase, a fascinating memoir covering his early years as a cub reporter, copy editor and eventually editor and publisher over decades of distinguished work. He connects what happened in those early years to the changes wrought by technology and the Internet, and what he sees as he watches his wife, Tina Brown, co-found and manage the Daily Beast.
Early in the book, you talk about your experience going to a family and telling them that their son had died in combat. You said that reporters weren’t regarded as intruders, but as “friends of the family.” Do you think newspapers have lost that?
Evans: I think a lot of newspapers have lost touch with that sense of community, which so impressed me as a teenager when I had to knock on people’s doors. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. When I went to get a photo of someone whose son had been killed, I walked up and down the street and thought about lying to the newspaper that I couldn’t find them, or that they turned me away. Anything but knocking on that wretched door. Finally I psyched myself up to knock on it. And they said, ‘Oh come in lad for a cup of tea. Do you want a photograph of our boy? Here you are.’
I had been at the newspaper for a few months. It wasn’t regarded as the paper, it was their paper. There was a sense of community because they reported, we reported, I reported the little things, the whist drives, the weddings, the funerals, the little speeches. In one sense it was the most boring copy in the world to anyone picking it up, but, on the other hand, it was crucial to the people who lived in those communities. But then came the invasion of privacy. There have been many instances where these guys have disguised themselves as doctors to try to get in and photograph a wounded sports star. It’s happened in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That kind of thing turns the newspaper from a friendly organ — not necessarily appeasing everybody — into the enemy. It’s one reason why newspapers have suffered circulation falls.
There’s a push online to do hyper-local editions to get into those nitty-gritty details in a community. Do you think that’s an opportunity to reignite the community aspect of newspapers?
Evans: I do, actually. I’ve been to a few local sites, one or two started by friends of mine, and they are slow to ignite, as far as I can see. The one in San Diego has taken off. But when there’s a lacuna in print, whether it’s daily or weekly newspapers or magazines, then there’s a real opportunity. Provided it’s a serious effort. I don’t mean dull, but that it’s a sincere effort. My wife [Tina Brown] co-founded the Daily Beast, so I have no hostility to the web or Internet. A number of print friends of mine regard it as the worst thing that’s ever happened, but I don’t.
Hear Evans talk about opinion journalism and the importance of reporting and basing opinions on facts:
You mention in your book that when you were working at the Manchester Evening News, it was like “a souped-up Internet service” and you helped produce eight editions in six hours without what you considered to be the crutch of a computer. Do you still believe that was more demanding than even Internet news sites?
Evans: I think it was much more demanding. Internet news cycles are by the minute, and any fool can take a headline from the Associated Press and send it out as news. If someone’s done the original reporting, that’s crucial. So when is original reporting made available? Usually through print, not so often through TV, and not so often through the Internet, though there are some good examples of that. What we were doing was something more complicated. Here we have the essence of journalism to me. In a sense it wasn’t original reporting from me because the copy was coming in from the Press Association [the British version of the AP].
First a paragraph garbled came in [about a train crash]. Then another paragraph came in saying three trains had crashed. Then a minute later, something coming in with a correction. And so on for a whole day. It was my real baptism of fire. So how do you relate these contradictory facts and give them coherence? We had eight editions in a day, which sounds like a lot, but it was an incredibly fast operation. Every piece of copy [was] arriving on the agency wire, and they were coming like a snow blizzard by the end. Hundreds of pieces of paper had to be reconciled with what you’ve put out in the newspaper before.
I often see cases of Internet news where there’s no reconciliation for what’s gone before and what’s newly arrived. That training for me — which was absolutely brutal and I was terrified — was so important, especially later in life when one was faced with conflicting stories and conflicting evidence.
The Huffington Post did some excellent coverage after the Iranian election and the protest by running commentary by Nico Pitney of all the things that had happened that day, coming in from so many sources, and trying to update and correct things. It seems a bit similar to what you describe, though it wasn’t their own original reporting.
Evans: The same thing happened in Bosnia, I wrote about it at the time. Somebody looked out their window and saw gangsters coming down the street and doing ethnic cleansing. I said that was the thing that would happen in the future, someone phoning in what they were seeing on the scene. Whether it’s the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Drudge Report or the BBC, all those reports, you have to assume there’s a real person [who] has credibility.
One of the problems I still have with that kind of reporting — it’s marvelous — but does it have a weakness that a reporter on the spot with a notebook doesn’t have? Does it lend itself to a government arm flooding a website with reports saying, ‘On the contrary, I saw the police treating people with great courtesy today.’ Just because it’s come from Tehran doesn’t mean it’s true. The credibility of a newspaper or news magazine is essential so you can check it for accuracy. I’m not saying it’s not valuable. One can make a case for just running everything. Just run it! That’s one of the advantages of the web, you can run everything — but you don’t help the reader find out what’s important.
Also — this impressed me when I was the editor of the Sunday Times [of London] — we had the “Bloody Sunday” killings of 13 unarmed civilians by British paratroopers. We interviewed 500 people for our report, and not one of them could give us a total picture of what was happening. It was like the Rashomon effect multiplied a million times. For a website or even a newspaper to be a collector of information flow is not the highest form of journalism. It has its value, but the highest form of journalism to me is what the people on the team did for me to assess what the 500 people had said, and check it against the photographic record from disparate sources, and then check it against the official line from the government and check forensic evidence and bullet wounds, etc. That remains the best kind of journalism, and I remain fantastically proud of what my team did with the “Bloody Sunday” reports.
If that same thing happened today, with those 500 people you talked to, if they could post their pictures, write their blog posts, you still would be sorting through perhaps even more information, but you wouldn’t know if they were trustworthy.
Evans: You as an experienced journalist know, it goes back to my time when I was studying at Chicago and at Stanford University, where many many cases of two people observing the same event have a different take on what happened. There was a staged case at Columbia where a white guy pulled a gun and started harassing people, and the cops came. And among the 30 or 40 people who were interviewed, they said it was the black guy who had a gun. There was just one black guy on the platform and he wasn’t carrying the gun. The point I’m trying to make is that, as the cops know well, it’s extremely important and not always very easy to get it right as to what people saw and whether it’s credible.
Journalism is not easy. It’s the first rough draft. I don’t think you need to wait around until you have the definitive thing. You record what’s there; don’t delude yourself that this is the ultimate historical view.
Hear Evans talk about how the Internet makes editorial research much easier than in early times:
With the democratization of media, everyone can write their own blog, create their own video or podcast. What are the benefits of that and perhaps the downsides?
Evans: I think there’s a lot of benefit in letting people vent. When I was on the Manchester Evening News, we got 500 letters a day, and part of my job as editor was to edit them. And I thought that was one of the best things in the newspaper, and it was instituted by an editor known as Big Tom, who said ‘this is the voice of the people.’ And he was quite right. I think there’s enormous value in all that, but with one qualification. The democratization of news is fine and splendid, but it’s not reporting. It’s based on a fragment of information picked up from television or the web, and people are sounding off about something that’s not necessarily true.
…When [Dan Rather] was sacked by CBS — I’m really interested in typography — the amount of stuff that was opinion around things that were fact about the way a Microsoft document would look was total rubbish. The opinions were based on erroneous facts. What I’m driving at is let’s not lose sight in our excitement of the democratization of the media that some things are bad, false and ugly — and no amount of electronic gloss will make them true, beautiful and accurate.
So you think there’s a place for professional journalists to check and filter these kinds of reports?
Evans: I don’t want to overdo it. The ‘gatekeepers’ became a term of revile. But when you think about the flow of information, I personally value immensely the calibration a news organ, whether it’s on the web or in print, brings to the floodwaters of information. I haven’t the time to read all the dispatches of the Associated Press, for example. It’s fantastic what they put out, it’s extremely good, from all over the world. I like when someone acts as a filter. If I want to spend the rest of my life reading one day’s output of information, which is about what it would take, OK fine. But I personally prefer calibration from an aggregator or newspaper, where the No. 1 story is one they consider important, [and] they’re usually right.
Television and radio are what I call sequential media; they’re not simultaneous media. With simultaneous media, you can scan your eye down an electronic or print page and pick among six or seven stories you might like and want to read. With television and radio, you have to wait until the guy’s finished talking about the balloon boy, which I don’t have the slightest interest in, to find out that all hell’s broken loose in Baghdad. Because they’ve chosen that day to start with the balloon boy. If they want to start with that, it’s fine. But it delays the really important story. In a newspaper, you’d have 50 people blown up in Baghdad in the lead position, and the balloon boy would be put somewhere where it’s relevance is appropriately signaled, which is minimal.
With print media, there’s been so much talk around Rupert Murdoch saying he wants to charge for everything online. What do you think about putting up pay walls or charging micropayments for content?
Evans: If Rupert Murdoch wants to charge for content online, he will succeed in so far, but no further than what he provides that is unique and can’t be found anywhere. Just to give an absurd example, if he wants to start charging for stock market indices, no one’s going to pay for that— it’s on a number of websites. If he’s providing investigative journalism or arresting commentary or original stories or interpretations that the reader perceives has value, then if he wants to charge, that’s fine. People will decide whether they want to pay. It doesn’t seem to me that if he wants to charge it will be a blow to universal freedom and liberty of mankind.
The bigger question is whether charging will help newspapers survive or whether it will hurt them.
Evans: I think it will help them survive. When I was in London, the editor of the Guardian told me that the revenues from their website were $30 million, but unfortunately their costs are $70 million to generate news for the paper. But $30 million is almost half the costs, so just imagine if that develops — and it’s a free site and a very good site. The Wall Street Journal gets significant revenues from charging, so if that helps to sustain a newspaper as important as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, so be it. If, on the other hand, they charge for something that’s not valuable, it’s not going to pay. It’s an incentive, if they have any sense, to make sure the content does have that unique appeal.
Hear Evans talk about how he’d pay for expert analysis of English soccer games:
It’s a fascinating time, I think. I do believe that with all the qualifications I’ve said — [such as] the uncertain accuracy of the web — nonetheless the access to speeches, documents is unparalleled with the ease of gathering information. If I had had that access when I was an editor or coming up, it would have made my life so much easier. As it was, everything took so much longer.
[The web] is going to end up being a tremendous advantage, providing we can work out the financial structure. I think we’ll see newspapers survive, being printed at home on a machine that I’ve seen in operation, which is a Hewlett-Packard machine that costs $2,900. Not everyone can afford that, but you can print out a beautiful digital paper on that, transmit it online. That capital cost will surely come down. Or you’ll have a local print shop, so that rather than waiting for the newspapers to arrive by truck, which is 30 percent at least of a newspaper’s cost, you’ll go in and push a button, and it will take your dollar bills without anyone having to be there. And it will print the newspaper for you while you wait. It will take seven minutes. There’s a terrific future for print in my view and it gives me great heart.
We always talk about how everyone is unifocal. You can’t possibly be interested in jazz and Beethoven. Of course you can. You can’t both be reading a newspaper and be online. Of course you can. We shouldn’t be obsessed with a gun to your head, ‘You either read a newspaper or die!’
Hear Evans talk about how ‘meatheads’ took over newspapers and cut too much editorial:
What do you think about Harold Evans’ views on newspapers? Do you think print has a bright future? How can we learn from the past to inform our future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo of Dan Rather by Michael Foley via Flickr.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.