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Evelyn Richards

Evelyn Richards started in journalism at age 9, when she and a friend wrote and distributed a neighborhood magazine.

She graduated to the professional world after earning a BSJ and MSJ from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Her 30 years of reporting and editing for daily newspapers began with a brief stint in Ohio. Then in the mid-1970s she landed in Silicon Valley, just as many of the formative companies were getting started. Evelyn covered technology and was business editor for the Peninsula Times Tribune before moving in 1981 to the San Jose Mercury News, where she served as a tech reporter, columnist, and investigative reporter, and as the technology editor.

Early on, she started the paper’s consumer-oriented Sunday Computing section and its quarterly survey of venture capital investments, both firsts in the newspaper industry. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Evelyn was the national technology reporter for The Washington Post, and after moving to Japan, she continued as a special correspondent for the Post from Tokyo, where she also edited at the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

Evelyn rejoined the Mercury in 1996 as assistant business editor and later was editor of a team that examined the Valley’s developments anthropologically. She left the Mercury for the second time in the mid-2000s to focus on helping young students develop writing and journalism skills. In 1986-87, Evelyn was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

— Evelyn Richards

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INTERVIEW MULTIMEDIA
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

John: I’m talking today with Evelyn Richards. I’m
here in Cambridge and Evelyn is in Palo Alto. After we get into
this a bit, we’ll switch to a video where we were both in the same
room talking, instead of over Skype. Evelyn, thank you for talking
today. Can you tell me about your career, can you trace your career
arc, how you got into journalism?

Evelyn Richards: Yeah, thank you John. I was completely a journalism junkie,
and when I was about nine years old I started a neighborhood
magazine. Then I worked on my junior high school paper, and I was
editor of my high school paper, and I was a correspondent for a
local newspaper, and eventually I got my Bachelors and Masters in
journalism. I had an interest in math and a minor in math, and
so I was never sure how that was going to come together. Of course,
I couldn’t see into the future.

When I was in grad school, I did specialize in economics
reporting, so it kind of came together there. My first job was in
Elyria, Ohio. I graduated in ’75 with my masters, and there weren’t
any jobs then, because that was the depth of a recession. I took
the first job that was offered to me, and I was a City Hall
reporter in Elyria, Ohio, which was a really fun and interesting
job. Then I suddenly received a phone call from a newspaper out
here in the Bay Area that had my resume already, and they had a job
covering night police which wasn’t very fun, but I knew I wanted to
get to California and I took that job.

It was very lucky for me, because in a couple years after
that the Chicago Tribune bought the paper I was working for,
expanded the business department, and suddenly my math and my
journalism came together and I became a business reporter. Shortly
thereafter, the business editor quit, so I became the business
editor. I spent several years, then, covering for this paper in
Palo Alto, the beginnings of Silicon Valley. I would say that was in
the mid to late 70s.

Then in 1981, the San Jose Mercury, I think might have been
the first paper in the country or one of the first to start what we
now know as these huge business sections on Mondays. They were
expanding their staff, and that was a great opportunity for me, so
I moved over to the San Jose Mercury covering the computer
industry. I spent quite a few years there, just mining this
tremendous beat of the growing Valley. It was just a tremendous
time to be a reporter.

I started the first computing section, I started the weekend
section with computing. I started the venture capitalist survey,
creating all these forms that venture capitalists could fill out
about their investments which has grown into a huge national survey
now. It’s run by Coopers or Price Waterhouse or somebody. They
eventually bought it out. Then I became the technology editor, so
I was really in the early days of the Valley. One of my first
interviews with Steve Jobs was about his dress code and the fact
that you could wear Birkenstocks to work at Apple.

Gee, that was so revolutionary, so I guess they always
thought different. Then, I did a fair amount of international
reporting and some investigative reporting, and I eventually left
the Mercury to go to Stanford, came back and then I went to the
Washington Post to be the national technology writer. I had a
bureau out here in Silicon Valley, opened a bureau for them in
Silicon Valley.

John: That was about what year, Evelyn? What year was that?

Evelyn: That was 1988.

I spent a few years writing about the emerging tech issues
from the business side and policy side. It was when Al Gore was
first talking about the information superhighway and
commercializing what had been a military network to become a
commercial network. It was, like I said, the beginning of the tech
rise. It was also a challenging time, because ’88 was still the
tail end of the mid-80s recession. IBM was headed down too, and Apple
was laying people off and you couldn’t really see where the future
was going to be.

Then I moved overseas. I kept an affiliation somewhat
with the Post but I moved to Japan with my husband. I worked with
the Nihon Keizai Shimbun which is a Japanese newspaper kind of
like the Wall Street Journal with an English-language edition that
I worked on. When I was at the Mercury, I had covered a fair amount
about Japan, trade wars, and I had been to Japan quite a bit, so it
was a wonderful move and there were great people working there. It
was just a really fun time to be inside a Japanese news
organization and see how their journalism was very, very different
from what American journalism was like.

Evelyn: Then, just to wrap it up, I moved back to the Palo Alto
area. I went back to the Mercury, that was in ’96. I was an
assistant business editor and that was just the time that Apple
was bringing Steve Jobs back. Since I had covered Apple all those
years from the late 70s, all the way until I went to Japan — that
was more than 10 years I jumped back into that story for a while as a
reporter. Then I moved on to another job at the Mercury
which was the editor of a team of reporters who covered the
Valley in a way that was more anthropological.

Since the Mercury had a huge staff at that time, we had the
luxury of doing some non-beat reporting and we created a team of
four or five reporters who tried to look at some issues in the
Valley that were created because of the tech boom. I think we were
some of the first people who looked at the income gap that’s of
course in the news now, and the impact of money. We did a huge
series, a five-part series called “The Cost of Living in Silicon
Valley”, meaning a double meaning there with “Cost” and the toll it
took on people’s lives. We commissioned some surveys to be done,
and we analyzed the income trends and the wealth trends, and the
opposite of the wealth trends.

I think we did some kind of pioneering work on some of the issues that
had to do with the impact of technology on our lives. Then, after
that, I moved into another editing role that was outside of tech,
that had to do with more international reporting. Then I left the
Mercury and have been doing other things since.

John: Since you left the Mercury, what are some of the other
things you have been doing?

Evelyn: Oh. Well, I left the Mercury saying that I wanted to become
more involved in education, and so I started out tutoring, and I’ve
been tutoring writing on and off to children since then. More
recently I’ve had a small job in the journalism program at the high
school in Palo Alto working with students there to improve their
writing and reporting skills.

John: When you talk to me about the work you
did in the 2000s at the Mercury, and your reporting, what are some
of the huge changes you’ve seen in the Valley, and in the area? I
mean, your coverage has been there for over 20 years. Is it
primarily the wealth effect or what other things have you seen
personally in the Valley as far as tech goes? As far as tech and
its impact on the community?

Evelyn: Well, tech went from being just an industry to being like
everything here. Everybody’s life is touched by how well or poorly
the large tech companies are doing, so it’s just become completely
pervasive. Not just here, but in lots of parts of the country.

John: Right. How about, try to talk about some of the changes in
tech journalism in those years? Because you went from being– you
were there at the beginning when it was almost a local beat
technology because of the growth of the Valley and it’s become
this huge beat. Was it collegial in the beginning, competitive at
the end? What’s the arc of tech journalism coverage that you’ve
seen?

Evelyn: Well of course, in a lot of ways it was easier for us in the
early days. I shouldn’t say easy. Easier in a different way. Easier
for us to get closer, to get a unique story, but harder to get
information probably, because information just wasn’t flowing out
everywhere. You had to really use your reporting skills and your
interpersonal skills to get information.

Now, I guess the information gathering part of it might be
somewhat easier because there is so much out there. Of course, you
have to check everything, but it’s harder to get a unique angle now
because there’s so many sources.

John: Yeah, and there’s so many reporters now?

Evelyn: That’s what I mean, so many sources of news.

John: The Mercury News, while you were there, was long known as
one of the innovative spots in journalism. They had money at that
time, you had people in the past like Roger Fidler and people like
that. Were you involved in that, or was that almost a separate part
of Knight Ridder, were you on board or were you separate from the reporters?

Evelyn: I personally wasn’t involved. I think some people might have
been, but I was away from the Mercury from ’88 to ’96, which
was kind of a key period. I think that some people were consulted,
but I was not in that. I did do a rotation in SiliconValley.com,
which was our website in that operation for a while, after I came
back to the Mercury so I could become familiar with it. I wouldn’t
say I was consulted and at that point they were even in a separate
building.

John: They were even in a separate building?

Evelyn: At that point they were, yeah.

John: That’s interesting. When you work at the Post, did they
ever brainstorm with you?

Evelyn: No.

John: It was more of a journalistic assignment, not a business
assignment?

Evelyn: Yes.

John: OK. A lot of times, you hear news outlets being, news media
being criticized because they didn’t innovate fast enough. There was
something in the news media, be it the Chinese wall between
business and news, be it journalists paid to write. Be it whatever
in the newsroom, who were criticized for not having an innovative
enough in that period. What do you think? What’s your take on that?

Evelyn: I don’t necessarily agree with that. I feel like every
industry was caught up in trying to figure out how to evolve to an
online world. From banking, to insurance, to car manufacturing,
everybody I think the news media was just one of them and everybody
had stumbles. I don’t feel like we were in some way supposed to
figure it out any better than anybody else.
No because we weren’t a technology-based industry at all. I
don’t really feel like we should say that the news industry was
more clumsy than anybody else.

John: OK, OK. How about, you also were there for another
transition, the beginnings of a transition. When we began in this
business, sure they were journalism stars, but the institution was
always meant to occupy a higher ground than we as individuals. We
were meant to supplement. We moved into an era, probably over the
last 15 years, where followings become audiences, and what were
once stars become brands. Did you ever notice that transition, did
you ever feel that? What do you have to say about that?

Evelyn: I guess I never totally thought about that either because
there were always columnists. The New York Times had its famous
columnist, always. The Des Moines Register had Donald Kaul, and Herb
Caen was at the San Francisco Chronicle, so I think there were always
personalities within a local market that drove the news decisions
at those papers. I’m sure at the Chronicle they were always saying
“What is Herb going to write tomorrow?” I’m sure that was always
part of it, and so now maybe they are more national brands because
it’s online.

I’m not a huge blog reader because I’m a traditional
journalist and I don’t necessarily trust the credentials or even
more whether the blog writers have any conflicts of interest, what
I would consider conflict of interest. Whereas in the newspapers, I
knew that there were standards that stood behind the people, that
underlined what they did. I guess I always feel like news
was partly personality driven. On air, certainly too.

John: Do you think some of those traditional
ways that you had, because you’re a more traditional journalist,
you believe that the brand was a filter. You knew the person was
going to have the following standards if they were going to report
for the Chronicle, or for the networks, anything else. You think
it’s harder to navigate now?

Evelyn: Yes.

John: As far as all the information columns?

Evelyn: Well as a reader, as a consumer of news, absolutely.
Because you don’t know what TechCrunch brand stands for, for example.

Evelyn: The simple answer would be no. I wasn’t thinking
about how the news business was going to be changed. Because you’ve
got to think, too, when I stopped reporting in ’91, it was a little
too early to maybe think about that.

Over the years that I was reporting, I would say I was
reporting the tech side and I was also reporting the business side.
I was more of a business person than the tech person.

I would hear people…I would say one wake-up moment for me
was maybe in around 1990 when I went to visit Project Xanadu with a
guy named Ted Nelson.

John: Remind me. What was Project Xanadu?

Evelyn: It was a bunch of guys here who were, they coined the word,
or they were doing hypertext. It was Ted Nelson, who was a real,
true visionary. He said that at some point in the not-too-distant
future, you’re going to be able to log on your computer and get
onto the card catalog of any…

Any library in the world, or anything. I couldn’t believe
it. But, see, somebody like John Markoff might have believed it,
because I wasn’t so much into the tech side of it.

I remember hearing, like, “Oh, you’re going to be able to
make a phone call from the middle of the desert, walking across a
desert.” I’m like, . I had my journalism skepticism, OK?

But, if I would have stepped back and thought about the
march of technology and how all the pieces were coming together, but
they weren’t coming together in a Eureka way.

There was stuff happening in telecom with satellites and
with packet switching with optical fibers and with everything to
do with the telecom side of it. Then there were huge advances in
storage, starting with disk storage way back in the ’60s.

Which was absolutely critical to the march of technology
forward. The semiconductor advances. Absolutely indispensable when
you look back on it. The software, HTML and the whole
operating systems and browsers and all of those pieces.

If you look at that now it doesn’t look like a Eureka
thing. Every single piece had a place. It all was this huge mosaic,
so to speak, that had to come together before the Internet and then
these subsequent advances. Here I am thinking more about the
business things.

If you look back on that, too, I look back and I see, yeah,
there were some things. There, I saw a little bit more. For
example, the internationalization. To me, that was always a big
thing. When I saw Taiwan coming up.

When I saw Korea, through Samsung, changing, slowly the
Chinese getting more, all those things were equally critical to
getting the ubiquitous technology that we have today, because that
affected the manufacturing cost and the labor piece of it. I sensed
that globalization pretty early.

Similarly, the personality piece of it, the return of Steve
Jobs. I sensed that, too. I could tell, that…I should say, before
that, none of us ever suspected that Apple would be where it is
today, bigger than IBM. IBM was it.

Yet, when Steve Jobs came back there was just something that
you could kind of
feel. If you think of the industry and the interplay of those
two companies, IBM, and then IBM partnering with Apple in the early
’90s…

Which was unheard of, because they had been this little
tiny upstart and this huge behemoth. Then, IBM practically falling
apart. They had to bring in Lou Gerstner. He was like, “Oh, my God.
How am I going to repair this company?” Now, they’re like the two
titans. They just formed another deal.

If you look at the evolution of that, there were some
turning points there that you could also see. Without Apple, I
don’t know where we’d be in terms of the whole Internet revolution
and the visions that they had.

Their ability to do some amazing software work, their
ability to figure out the manufacturing piece of it, the marketing
piece of it, and set the standard, really, for everybody. There
were also some regulatory things, that were key, with the anti-
trust laws going away.

Which enabled big carriers to have the money to
lay the optical fibers and to do the satellite stuff. Of course,
satellite technology — amazing. Even things like gyroscopic
technology to be able to hold things, little things you never think
of. They all had to come together.

I don’t think that you can look back and say there was a
Eureka moment. There were so many moving pieces, and there still
are, that it’s only in hindsight that you can see some of the
inflection points. As a journalist, I lost touch with some of the
technological advances which were always going on.

First of all, it wasn’t so much my focus. But, secondly, we
were so caught up in writing about the companies and who’s coming
and going and even the horrible recession. I remember Bob Noyce
saying in the mid ’80s when we had the horrible recession something like

“There’s no bright spot on the horizon. There’s nothing
coming down. This is it.” You’re so caught up in the economics of
the moment that you’re not thinking about what’s going on in the
labs or how the little pieces are going to fit together.

John: You used a wonderful example to say “its like
laying a mosaic,” like being a painter with pointillism.
It you’re working that close to the points, you’re not able to step
back enough to see how all the points necessarily combine.

Evelyn: I used that word because that was what the browser was
first called.

John: Let’s talk a bit about that mosaic and the
fascination, the characters involved, the Apple, the
whole personality coming to the business of it.

Do you think over time we turn from the anthropology that
you were directed about the valley at one point into chasing more
down the personality-driven coverage, putting it back on top?

Evelyn: It’s always been personality-driven. No, I don’t think
there was a big switch. I mean if you look at how other industries
were covered before tech, there was always emphasis on the people
at the top.

What we tried to do is not necessarily look at the people at the
top because really so many people make up a company or make an
innovation. I didn’t feel that it was fair to always be focusing on
the CEOs. That’s just not my way of looking at life.

John: Fair. Stepping back, from a remove, how do you think
journalism did covering this whole digital transition?

Evelyn: You mean the digital transition of journalism or the
digital transition of the world?

John: Let’s say the world first.

Evelyn: We did OK. Let me think about that for a minute. If I put
together everything I would read over those years from trade
journals to mainstream media to broadcast media, we covered a lot
of bases. You’re in the middle of it.

There was a mix of minutia stuff like in the trade journals
and the step-back pieces that maybe the Journal would do or that we
would do or occasionally Time Magazine would do or something. I think
that was the appropriate mix.

I don’t think there was any…there were times when people
like John (Markoff) or people at Fortune or elsewhere would go out and
say, “Here’s how the future looks.” I remember some of those pieces
like in Wired, a great magazine in its time. My husband gave me this
before I left.

This is the 1965 version of Electronics Illustrated where
they first talked about the integrated circuit. My husband claims —
this is when he was in high school — that he could see that the
future was going to be amazing, that this was going to change so
much.

Of course, he wouldn’t have been able to see and it was the
same for us. We did our best to lay out what the future could be
and of course you can’t see exactly. But people were pretty much on
the right track.

If we go back and look at some of John Markoff’s stuff, he
was totally on the right track and he was early on about what
the Internet was going to be able to do. He was early on
computer security, which is a huge issue now.

All of us in the world are in the same boat about
being vulnerable to some computer security issues. He was raising
that flag a long time ago.

If you were to go back, we covered a lot of the bases if
you’re
looking at the totality of what all reporting was. As far as how it
changed journalism, I don’t think we were reporting on ourselves.

John: Should we have?

Evelyn: I don’t think journalists should be out there like…I mean
I don’t think most people in the world care about journalists or
what journalists do, other than getting them the information.

It would have been like, “Who cares?” I do think that the
entire world is tech jobs now and things have changed so
fundamentally. We used to talk about the tech business as X-percent
of the economy, and now it’s the entire economy.

No job has been untouched, and so now it’s an entirely
different thing covering tech because you’re covering everything. So
it’s different.

John: I don’t think we saw it becoming everything.

Evelyn: No, I don’t think we did, but certain reporters could see
it more than others. I do think that if you look back and you look
at some of the trade journals, they were out there. If you talked
to Ted Nelson at Xanadu, they were definitely out there with the
vision.

There were visionaries out there who could paint it better.
I don’t think at the Mercury, we would do that so much, but other
people were doing it. It’s important to look at the whole picture
of everybody who’s out there reporting.

John: Now, it goes back to that mosaic example, many of us were too
close and so we’re able to step back. Some did and some didn’t.

Evelyn: We stepped back more…I stepped back more in a way of
looking at economy and workplace lifestyle, that thing, and more
technology’s impact on society,

whereas other people like John Markoff focused more on
where’s the tech going. We had different ways in looking at things.

John: The thing that many people say is that what we all
underestimated was the speed of the transition between the early
’80s and now, how tech became everything.

Evelyn: That could be.

John: None of us really anticipated Moore’s law and change.

Evelyn: That’s the other thing, too. I mean living out here…you
heard about Moore’s Law your whole life. You got to remember that as
a journalist you’re trying to be skeptical.

You’re not going to go in there and buy Moore’s Law and
paint this picture of how everything’s going to be because then
you’d feel like you’re drinking the Kool Aid.

You don’t want to say this: “There’s going to be
this Internet that’s going to do all this stuff” because then
you’re buying their line. You purposely didn’t do that. If you’re
blaming us, it’s partly because we were being our skeptical selves.

I would have felt like a sap if I would have written some
article about how Intel’s microprocessors were going to get so much
faster and they were going to be able to do this and this.

And I would have felt like, “Gee, where’s my skepticism?”
You did that, but you did it in moderation or you did it with a lot
of “but” graphs in there, “to-be-sure” paragraphs.

Like I said, if you look, there was that in the trades, in
Wired, and some of the other magazines. That was out there, but we
didn’t necessarily in the daily papers feel like that was our
place.

John: That’s a fair point, absolutely a fair point. If you look
forward, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of
journalism?

Evelyn: I’m a pessimist at heart, but I’m pretty optimistic.

John: Why?

Evelyn: Because, like I mentioned before, there are a lot of ideas
bubbling up. The money side of it is the hard part.

I do feel sad when I see the traditional journalism
publications shrinking like I know the Times has and other
publications, so
that does worry me. That does worry me, but I hope that over time
people will see that quality matters. So I guess I’m kind of mixed.

John: What do you feel about citizen journalism as a replacement,
substitute, or alternative to what is described as professional?

Evelyn: I’m not so hot on that. I see citizen journalism as feeding
into, as being the sources, for the professional journalist.

John: Not really the replacement for, yeah.

Evelyn: That’s what would help anyway. It’s great as a journalist
to be able to have all these eyes and ears out there, but then you
have to be the filter.

John: Yeah, and you have to know who’s feeding you.

Evelyn: Then you have to trust that over time the consumers will
understand the difference. Do you think that’s happening?

John: A number of people I’ve talked to say that jury is out
because what they see a need for it to happen. The evidence of a
more discriminating consumer is sort of scant thus far. People have
cut down on
their information flows, but they haven’t…

The worry is that information, this small bit of
information they’re getting, is reinforcing their prejudices or
their news judgment not challenging them.
I want to hear from people who agree with me. That’s
some of the worry that cutting it down (your information results).
You’re reinforcing, you’re
not widening the voices you hear. If I said…

Evelyn: Was that any different then?

John: Perhaps. I don’t know.

Evelyn: Yeah, I don’t know either.

John: Time will tell. As you said correctly, you still pick out
some of the bylines you want to read. If that’s not any different, then
fair enough.

Evelyn: I don’t really know. I don’t think we have any choice but
to wait and see what happens, and then to make sure that the
professional journalism organizations are supported financially. I
think a lot of foundations are stepping forward.

John: I hope that’s a sustainability that we have to see.

Evelyn: Yeah, it’s expensive.

John: Yeah, we’ll see. Well, thank you very much.

Evelyn: Thank you.

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