This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death earlier this week of Sir Harold Evans, coming amid a historic crisis in journalism, prompts a moment to savor what the great editors were like. The son of a steam locomotive engineer, he rose through newsrooms to become, in Britain and America, one of the towering editors of his time. He moved in the loftiest of circles, yet never lost his passion for the day-to-day competition and craftsmanship of newspapering and for the people we write about.
We liked Evans enormously. We’d met at lunch in the 1990s, when we were editing the Forward, and again after word leaked out that we were about to launch a new daily newspaper at New York City. We were still building our newsroom in Chambers Street when he and his wife, Tina Brown (who towered right beside him), stopped by. In our office-to-be, Harry reclined on a table (there were not yet any chairs) and peppered us with questions.
When Evans asked whether we’d done any mockups of our front page, we moved into the newsroom, where Page One prototypes were hanging on the wall. From about 10 feet away, Harry, who once edited the London Times, exclaimed: “I see you’re using Times New Roman for your body type!” We allowed we’d long admired its look, to which Evans replied: “I chaired the committee that designed that font.”
A wonderful bit of newspaper one-upsmanship. Evans tried to get us to abandon the American practice of capitalizing all the major words in headlines, and vowed to send us one of the books he wrote on typography and newspaper layout. And he spent an hour with us poring over our designs for column spacing and rules and leading. It was like watching Zino Francescatti examine a violin.
Evans was an old-fashioned liberal of the ilk we greatly admire. (Tina Brown, too. To those who caution that she’s to our left, we say: “So is the Statue of Liberty.”) Evans had an immigrant’s enthusiasm for America, of which he became a citizen and about whose innovators he wrote an inspiring book. He turned out to share our admiration for the anti-communist trade union movement, and such labor leaders as Lane Kirkland and Irving Brown. Evans once gave in London a major speech on European anti-Semitism.
Evans’ most famous journalistic campaign was on the plight of the babies who’d been born to women who, while pregnant, had taken the drug Thalidomide. He pursued the cause to the European Court for Human Rights and is credited with gaining compensation for these tragic victims. He was editing the London Sunday Times when it broke one of its greatest scoops under the headline: “Philby: I spied for Russia.”
In America, Evans edited or oversaw the New York Daily News, the Atlantic, Random House, and U.S. News & World Report, among other institutions, including, briefly, The New York Sun. We’d invited him to take over as guest editor for a week, during which we made ourselves scarce. Returning was a humbling experience. We asked the news editor how it went: “He’s fantastic,” he said. “You should hire him as editor.”
Harry Evans’ death comes at a time when newspapering is engulfed in a crisis not only of genres — with the decline of print and the rise of the Internet — but also of values. It’s not our intention here to say the current race to the bottom can end only in oblivion. If newspapering does, in whatever format, pull itself out of this dive, though, it will be for the values, standards, and esprit of which Evans was an exemplar.