Sir Harold Evans on Newspapers

Oh yes, absolutely. I think the decline of the printed newspaper is a great loss for English. Because in the first place, the most primitive requirement— going back many years—is to reconcile what you want to say in the space in which it has to be said. So, wordcount is a great constraint in newspaper English. That technically imposed restraint on the space, and the need to be concise was very important. It remains so to some extent, but is not as central as it was because you can go all over the place on the Web.

Secondly, I think that the other imperative of news was making it clear and understandable. You’re not writing to your grandmother or your lover. You’re writing for a mass audience, you hope. Therefore, you want words that are in common use. So, as you write, you ask, is that in everybody’s vocabulary? Newspapers have always had to have a common language. And obviously, we don’t have a common language for many scientific and technical things. But the influence of newspapers meant that we had to explain them. What is a chip? Or what is a gene?

Also, in terms of the things I’ve written about in my book, newspapers demand active voices and sentences, most of all in headline-writing. I think all of those factors—the inquiring mind, the need for expression, a common vocabulary and understanding— were hugely influential on the English language. Northcliffe, who began publishing The Daily Mail at the end of the 19th century, wanted it to be readable by a 12 year old, and certainly by people who might have left school at 15. So, people of my generation were ideal. My working-class father, who was an extraordinary intelligent guy, always took The Daily Express.

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