A Piece of the Action

Harold Evans’s autobiography My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times carries the reader along with the velocity of a reporter on deadline, which of course Evans was for most of his career. As the former editor of the London Sunday Times and The Times of London (along with many other accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic), reporting the news has been his lifeblood. As a child he met survivors of Dunkirk on the beach at Rhyl in North Wales. Their accounts were at odds with what he read in the newspapers and so started a lifelong interest in the role that journalism played in exposing propaganda and special interests. As a boy from a working class family in Manchester, he had to work hard to finesse the English school system in order to get the college education he knew he would need to become a reporter. 
He began working at newspapers in and around Manchester in the late 1940s, at a time when local newspapers competed fiercely for readership. It’s hard to summon up that time when print was the primary source of news; it was important for a paper to have a distinct  “voice” that would drive circulation. Evans was always looking for the scoop, the crusade, the expose, the local advocacy that would distinguish his newspaper from the rest.
Evans tells terrific stories about those scoops and crusades, but what I enjoyed most is his writing about the reporter’s craft and how rough facts and reportage are translated into print by “subs” (copyeditors in the U.S.). Evans himself admits that he is “addicted to print,” by which he means the actual sight of words on a page. In the front of the book is a full-page graphic called “The Vanished Newspaper Office” a wonderful representation of  how a newspaper used to be written and produced in the days of the linotype machine. He loved the pulse and flow of the newsroom, “…a news hub, a big central arena where people could be seen at work to the same clock and you could feel news rippling across the floor, a place for newspaper shoptalk and gossip, a place where directions could be defined, instructions shouted, enthusiasms raised, arguments concentrated, layouts examined, and disputes resolved by crossing a few feet to another desk.”
There’s something fascinating about that frenetic newsroom culture–and its hard-bitten, eccentric, often boozy participants–that’s why we love movies like The Front Page and Citizen Kane. There are several other memoirs about the newspaper business that capture some of that excitement of hunting down the story. Katherine Graham’s Personal History and Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures are both about the Washington Post and both cover the story of the Pentagon Papers. Bob Green’s Late Edition: A Love Story is another paean to the joys of newspapering as does Edward Kosner’s It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

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