Can Mort Rescue the Amazing Harry?

The merger of the legendary editor Harold Evans and the would-be benevolent press lord Mortimer Zuckerman looks like the natural

The merger of the legendary editor Harold Evans and the would-be benevolent press lord Mortimer Zuckerman looks like the natural consummation of a beautiful friendship. In providing a shelter for Mr. Evans, who was nudged out of Random House, Mr. Zuckerman brings some instant flash and cachet to his four less-than-sparkling publications, U.S. News & World Report , the Daily News , The Atlantic Monthly and Fast Company .

In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Zuckerman said he was considering the idea of taking his four publications public. And Mr. Evans, 69, a still-perky Great Man of Journalism who is not beneath grinning for the paparazzi at the countless parties he has attended and thrown, could serve as the perfect leading man in any campaign to convince investors to part with millions. Whether or not he makes substantive changes in the four publications, Mr. Evans-with his wife, New Yorker editor Tina Brown on his arm-makes a nice public face for this little unnamed media group.

Mr. Zuckerman also enjoys the gaze of the camera. See his guest-host appearances on Charlie Rose , the Sunday morning political programs and in the freelance photographers’ shots of New York media and society parties. He doesn’t cut a dashing figure on the party circuit, unlike Mr. Evans, and he isn’t a wily debater, unlike Mr. Evans, but there he is. And as previous editors of the Daily News have learned, he also loves to play editor. But he has promised to be good this time.

But whether the micromanager, even with loads of good intentions, can mend his ways is doubtful.

“Mort has always been the point person,” said noted designer Walter Bernard, who has worked for Mr. Zuckerman on Atlantic Monthly , U.S. News and, most recently, the Daily News . “Everyone deals with Mort. And now there’s another layer. And that’s going to be the most interesting experiment … People thought he was genetically incapable of marrying and having a child, and he’s done that.”

Others are not so sanguine. “He’s not going to back off,” said a media executive who has dealt with Mr. Zuckerman over the years. “People like Zuckerman never do.”

Mr. Zuckerman himself begged to differ. “No. 1, the work has expanded exponentially,” he said from London’s Heathrow Airport in a telephone interview. “No. 2, my time has imploded because of the fact I’m involved in several public companies, a wife and a child. And No. 3, any time you can get somebody as talented as Harry Evans to work for the talented editors we have, you want to make sure you just go for it.”

A friend of Mr. Evans said Mr. Zuckerman even went so far as to promise his friend editorial autonomy, and he put the promise in writing. Mr. Evans would also be in charge of a newspaper Mr. Zuckerman said he plans to launch next year, and any other publications he might acquire. The owner said he was modeling his corporate structure on that of Time Inc., where Norman Pearlstine, the editor in chief, watches closely over the managing editors in charge of the various publications.

Good Harry, Bad Harry

While certainly grateful to Mr. Zuckerman for giving him his first job in the United States back in 1984, Mr. Evans is no fan of meddling editors. His memoir of his 39-year career in journalism-much of which takes his former employer, Rupert Murdoch, to task-is full of lines like this one: “A proprietor of commercial and political instinct who interferes in the running of a quality newspaper will inevitably erode its standards. This need not be obviously dramatic. It can happen in ways as apparently innocuous as insisting that sport has extra columns at the expense of news, or closing a foreign bureau.” Editors who have gone through the revolving door at the Daily News would probably say that those words capture their old boss pretty well.

In interviews with the British press following his move from Random House to Mr. Zuckerman’s media properties, Mr. Evans was at once hucksterish and imperious, taking full advantage of the fact that overseas reporters have little idea that his new job is a little less prestigious than his old one.

“What is it Bagehot said about the role of the monarch?” Mr. Evans told The Guardian by way of explaining his new role. “To advise, to warn and to encourage. That’s how I shall try to act.” He also told the reporter back home, “The writing in the British press is so superior to most of the American press.”

In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Evans was sure to be a little more mealy-mouthed and humble: “I’m just going to absorb, talk to the editors, see what they need, talk to the staff, get a sense in further conversations of what they need, and whatever they need I think they ought to have, I will supply it for them,” he said. “I’ll give them some ideas, some of them will be good, some of them will be bad. I hope most of them will be good.”

What a cagey bastard! But he’s also perfectly suited to the job of editorial overseer. He combines great energy and zeal with a distaste for the tiresome day-to-day labors of running a publication. As a newspaper editor and publishing house boss, Mr. Evans did display one pronounced tendency that might not sit well with his boss: He loves to go after the big story, whatever the cost. “He founded his reputation on big-ticket journalism, yearlong investigations that cost a lot of money and manpower,” said a former Daily News employee familiar with Mr. Evans’ career. “But Zuckerman is a notorious penny pincher as far as editorial is concerned.”

If Mr. Zuckerman’s early enthusiasm is any indication of what will happen, he may just go for it. After all, he knows he hired a big-spending editor who craves attention-and he may just let him do his thing. “Harry, as far as I’m concerned, is the decathlon champion of print,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “I mean, he’s a great editor, he’s a great writer, he’s got a great pair of eyes, he’s great in newspapers, he’s great in magazines, he’s great in books. It just doesn’t get better than Harry Evans.”

Indeed, Mr. Evans’ journalistic achievements have left him a journalistic deity in his home country. Oh, there are some spoilsports who considered him a grandstander who got too close to the people he was supposed to cover, but his innovations and accomplishments are not really up for debate. He began his reporting career at the age of 16, as a reporter for a Lancashire weekly newspaper, and was editor of The Northern Echo before becoming editor of The Sunday Times in 1967 at the age of 38. During his 14 years at the Sunday Times and one at The Times of London, he won Editor of the Year awards of different stripes on four occasions. Those who have worked with him-even those who did not have kind words for his management style-rave about his ability as a packager, his design sensibility and his eye for talent.

The Crusader

Mr. Evans’ journalistic sensibility can be largely captured in one phrase: He believes in the crusade. “It’s simple,” said Phillip Knightley, a reporter and author who worked for Mr. Evans for 15 years. “Look for an injustice no one else has noticed, pick it up, publicize it and correct it.”

At The Northern Echo , Mr. Evans drummed up an inquiry into the wrongful hanging of one Timothy Evans. When he got to The Sunday Times in 1967, he freed up an investigative team for months-long investigations. In return, they delivered stories that altered laws and expanded the power of the press in a country without a First Amendment.

Mr. Evans embarked on a crusade to help the Thalidomide children, more than 450 of whom had been born with deformities due to the drug their mothers had taken during pregnancy and had not received any compensation. Showing his marketing brilliance in the service of a social injustice,he put each part of the series under the same headline: “Our Thalidomide Children: A Cause for National Shame.” He also made possible the exposure of spy Kim Philby and the truth about the 1974 crash of a DC-10. All of it impressive and all of it costly.

But to reporters at the Daily News , Mr. Evans is just a literary ringmaster who did something in journalism a long time ago somewhere far away. Daily News staff members said that if Mr. Evans is a monarch, he will be so under the current British model, as a figurehead. One columnist at the paper predicted that Mr. Evans will become “editor in chief of [Don] Imus”-meaning he will simply play the role of editor in chief on morning radio programs and such.

The surly Daily News staff members, who are traditionally an unhappy bunch, say that editor in chief Debby Krenek, who assumed the title of editor in chief in October, is “very upset about the whole thing,” as one colleague put it. “Look at it from her point of view. She’s run the paper for no great [salary] and now she finally gets the chance and she got shafted. Say circulation starts to pick up-who will take the credit?”

“It’s not a slam at her,” Mr. Zuckerman responded. “Harry will be a resource to all these editors, not to undercut them, not to be a threat to them. That’s his role … [Ms. Krenek] understands as well as anybody I’ve ever encountered what the mix has to be for a solid but populist newspaper.”

“I’ve had two meetings with Harry Evans,” Ms. Krenek said. “We got along very well … But he’s got four properties he’s got to see to…. If you divide it evenly, then 25 percent of time in one place is not a lot.… I hope to continue to put my stamp on the paper.”

Fred Drasner Blows

The Daily News ‘ rival, the sharp, gossipy New York Post , made merry with the news of Mr. Evans’ appointment by gleefully reporting that Daily News co-owner Fred Drasner-the street-tough stickball-playing publisher of Daily News TV commercials a few years back-would have to report to this interloper. The Post story made Mr. Drasner so crazy that he made a rare appearance at the afternoon news meeting in an attempt to dispel the notion that he ranked beneath Mr. Evans in the new order.

“He said Debby is the man,” said a witness, “and that he is not reporting to Harry Evans … He said that Harry was the broad brushstrokes guy.”

Ms. Krenek backed the co-owner, explaining Mr. Evans’ arrival this way: “It means that where before I reported to Fred and Mort, now I report to Fred and Harry.”

This notion of an all-powerful Harry Evans was masterminded by none other than Mr. Evans himself, who faxed a special handwritten notice of his departure-headed “Dear Friends”-to certain New York media elite. The note seemed like an example of perfect etiquette even as it was a bit heavy-handed in trumpeting his editorial autonomy under Mr. Zuckerman.

However he will act in January, when Mr. Evans begins his new job, Mr. Zuckerman has lately been very hands-on, especially at U.S. News . The magazine’s staff always knows when he’s in their building because of the smell of cigar smoke. The building has a no-smoking policy, but Mr. Zuckerman is the owner and lights up his stogies whenever he wants.

Mr. Zuckerman, sources said, is not completely thrilled with the job James Fallows has done as editor in chief of U.S. News . Mr. Zuckerman has complained at cover meetings that U.S. News needs more, well, news. Breaking news in particular. Mr. Fallows scorns the insider politics box scores, but in his quest to be forward-thinking and community-minded, the magazine has become whimsical, complain some writers and editors. It barely covered Al Gore’s fund-raising travails, instead treating readers to cover stories on “How Julia Child Invented Modern Life” and “Life After Death.” Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, one of the harshest (and funniest) critics of Mr. Fallows, wrote: “The magazine that was once derided as U.S. Snooze and World Report is now deemed U.S. Muse & World Report.”

Smoking Out Fallows

Readers did seem to be shying away from Mr. Fallows’ version of a newsmagazine in the first half of this year. Circulation dropped, particularly on the newsstand (a good test of a magazine’s vitality), where the number of U.S. News copies sold fell by nearly 10 percent from the previous year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (Those numbers have rebounded so far in the second half, according to a magazine spokesman.)

And Mr. Zuckerman made his presence felt by putting out feelers to Brian Duffy, a former investigative reporting chief for U.S. News who left for The Washington Post last January after clashing with Mr. Fallows. Those talks led to the kinds of rumors that often plague editors in chief, baseball managers and others in high-profile jobs. “I view this as a condition of my life that I will have to deal with for as many years as I am here,” Mr. Fallows said. A U.S. News spokesman said Mr. Fallows was not going anywhere. “Mort is happy with the general tone and direction of the magazine,” he said. But U.S. News , always third in the battle for readers and influence behind Time and Newsweek , does not seem any more relevant today than it did before Mr. Fallows took over.

Given his new involvement at U.S. News , few expect Mr. Zuckerman to stay out of it once Mr. Evans gets started. Even Mr. Evans himself has told friends that Mr. Zuckerman will still have a keen interest in editorials and anything to do with the Middle East. And Mr. Zuckerman enjoys the privileges of media ownership: power and prestige, invitations to great parties and audiences with politicians.

Mr. Zuckerman jokingly laments the perception of those who would portray him as a meddlesome busybody. “That’s only because they don’t know me,” he said. “You’re looking at one of the laziest people in the world.”

Lazy or not, Mr. Zuckerman has managed to keep himself especially busy in the Wall Street craze of recent years, public stock offerings. His activity in this area may be the surest sign of his intentions in hiring Mr. Evans. In fact, the editor has the chance to make a lot of money if Mr. Zuckerman takes his media properties public. The piece of the company Mr. Evans has talked about in the press is really just a phantom one.

“He has-like a lot of people-if I take the company public, he will have an equity stake,” said Mr. Zuckerman. “His equity in the company is if we go public.”

Mort the Money Man

Given Mr. Zuckerman’s financial maneuverings with his other companies-and his coyly suggestive answers to questions about a media I.P.O.-that’s likely to happen. Asked if he’s considered taking the magazines and newspaper public, Mr. Zuckerman answered, “Sure. These are all general thoughts. The only thing that counts is the specific execution of it. It’s got to be the Age of Aquarius every time you take a company public. Everything’s got to be properly aligned.”

Mr. Zuckerman’s market plays have been incredibly profitable for him and his investors so far. Boston Properties Inc., Mr. Zuckerman’s real estate investment trust that develops, owns and manages hotels, office buildings and industrial properties, went public this past June, raising nearly $903 million. It opened at $25 a share and as of Dec. 2, it was trading at $33.88. Applied Graphics Technologies Inc., a company that supplies digital pre-press and advertising services to publishers and advertisers, started in April 1996 at $12. On Dec. 2, the share price stood at $52, and Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Drasner have already gone back to the market and raked in another $258 million. And then there’s Snyder Communications Inc., rarely thought of as a Mort Zuckerman operation. But Mr. Zuckerman acted as a venture capitalist for this direct-marketing company about a decade ago. It went public a year ago September at $17, and is now trading at $34.

And investors are clamoring for media companies. “As the Cowles family discovered in Minneapolis, this is a great time to be selling media properties,” said David Cole, editor of News Inc. , a newsletter covering the newspaper industry. Cowles Media Company, publisher of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a bunch of special-interest and trade magazines, was sold last month for $1.4 billion. And while Wired Ventures got toasted in the press for its failed I.P.O. attempts, a number of more traditional publishers have gone public successfully, such as Petersen Companies Inc.

One New York investment banker scoffed at the prospects of a Zuckerman media I.P.O., arguing that circulation at the Daily News and U.S. News is stagnant at best, and that beyond Mr. Zuckerman’s upscale business magazine Fast Company , there’s little growth left in the company. Mr. Evans’ prominent role and talent for showmanship could help dispel that perception, however. Asked if Mr. Evans would be a featured player in any I.P.O., Mr. Zuckerman said, “I would hope so.”

But with the exception of his tenure as founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler , Mr. Evans’ big jobs in the 80’s and 90’s have ended badly. He finished his time as a Murdoch employee with a bang-walking out of The Times of London as cameras just happened to be following him. After 14 years of editing the very profitable Sunday Times , Mr. Evans was thrust into the editorship of the daily, money-losing Times after Mr. Murdoch bought the two papers in 1981. There the hero of British journalism received his first poor notices and suffered his first firing.

Mr. Evans’ relationship with Mr. Murdoch began swimmingly. “In those first few months Murdoch did everything and more to support me editorially,” Mr. Evans wrote in Good Times, Bad Times .

The Murdoch War

By the end of the first year of his tenure at The Times , more than 50 people had departed, most taking the handsome severance package. But Mr. Evans was hiring as quickly as people left, and usually at higher salaries. Mr. Murdoch was not pleased. He complained about articles he felt were not supportive enough of Margaret Thatcher and the Tory Government. He tried to block appointments at overseas bureaus.

The knock against Harry-that he is great on the big ideas but lousy on the orderly running of a place-soon surfaced. Stories would actually be lost in the newsroom, editions wouldn’t make the trains, editorials were deemed erratic by Mr. Murdoch, senior managers were threatening to quit.

Mr. Evans chafed at the interference. “None of this represented a reasonable exchange of views between editor and proprietor, unexceptional in any newspaper. The tone was assertive and hostile to debate.” He also charged that Mr. Murdoch’s machinations undermined the guarantees of editorial autonomy.

At Random House, under the gentler media mogul S.I. Newhouse Jr., the editor was also accused of being a spendthrift from people within the company-but his tenure ended with a whimper on Nov. 25, after months of negotiating a safe haven with Mr. Zuckerman.

Will things end the same way with Mr. Zuckerman? Probably not. Now that he has been in the public eye as the handmaiden for media villains like Dick Morris and Joe Klein, both Random House authors, Mr. Evans has become sensitive to the invasiveness of the free press. In this, he and Mr. Zuckerman are in agreement. And he may have mellowed in his desire for absolute editorial autonomy given his long friendships with Mr. Zuckerman and the possibility of an obscene payoff down the line in the event of a public stock offering.

Mr. Zuckerman first hired Mr. Evans in the mid-80’s, after the Murdoch debacle. Mr. Evans worked at the Atlantic Press and U.S. News and formed a good impression of Zuckerman-as-boss. “I have found him in my time at the U.S. News to be absolutely stalwart in defense of press standards,” Mr. Evans said. “I remember writing an editorial attacking the National Rifle Association, in which he had a vast advertising contract that had just been negotiated with U.S. News . There was an anxiety that if the editorial ran, the advertising would be pulled. Mort Zuckerman personally instructed that the editorial be run. It was run, and he lost the advertising, and he said to me, ‘Well, that’s journalism.’ And that’s the kind of guy he is. So that’s as far as I’m concerned. He’s not fickle; he’s firm and faithful.”

Mr. Zuckerman is also in the honeymoon phase. “I didn’t go through a number of editors because I liked to go through editors,” said the man who made life difficult for Daily News editors Pete Hamill and Martin Dunn. “I’ve had the same editor at The Atlantic for 17 years. I had the same editor at U.S. News for seven, almost eight years, which is Mike Ruby, and that’s because he was doing a great job. It’s not a questions of wanting to change; it’s a question of making sure you have the right people and you never know in some of these jobs until they’re in it.”

With reporting by Warren St. John. Can Mort Rescue the Amazing Harry?