John Evans, Online Publishing Pioneer (1938-2004) R.I.P.

John B. Evans, a man who influenced my entry into electronic publishing, died nine days ago at his home in New Jersey. His obituary appeared today in The New York Times.

A Welshman, Evans received a law degree from Cambridge University, then became a professional yachtsman for several years. Landing in New York City, he worked in advertising sales before joining the Village Voice in the early 1970s. He quickly rose to become that weekly newspaper’s publisher. In 1977, he joined Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation when it purchased control of Village Voice and later was named president of Murdoch’s U.S. stable of magazines (TV Guide, Elle, Seventeen, Mirabella, The Star, plus The Village Voice). In 1990, he moved to London and ran Murdoch’s British newspapers (The Times of London, The Sunday Times, and The Sun).

Evans returned to the U.S. in 1992 and formed News Electronic Publishing, a subsidiary to bring all of Murdoch’s publications online. Today’s New York Times quotes Murdoch’s former right-hand man, Martin Singerman, “As far as I know, he was the first person in print publishing that understood what was happening with the Internet and publishing.” There were a few others, but John was among the first. In October 1993, he was one of the reasons I joined News Corp. after leaving Reuters. Murdoch, on Evan’s suggestion, has purchased Delphi Internet Services Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time, Delphi was the world’s only consumer online service offering Internet access, back when America Online had a total of 129,000 subscribers. Murdoch was flush with recent success launching the Fox television network, and Evans told him that he could be equally successful online. I joined News Corp. at Delphi in Cambridge on the day that its sale to News Corp. closed.

Unfortunately, Evans wasn’t there. At the last minute, he had lost out an internal power struggle with Murdoch’s then brother-in-law, former radio disk jockey Jaan Torv. Rupert was always more loyal to blood than to competence. Evans knew a lot about online publishing; Torv knew very little, a failure which quickly showed. Despite an infusion of more than 400 new employees (including many top News Corp. editors and an intern named James Murdoch) and an alliance with MCI, Delphi within two years imploded at a net cost of more than $100 million to News Corp. I had left it within ten months. Had Evan led it, Delphi would have gotten somewhere big.

Frustrated, Evans gained the backing of Intel Corporation and bought News Electronic Publishing from News Corp. It became BizTravel.com, an early entry in the online travel industry. Evans retired soon afterwards.

3 Replies to “John Evans, Online Publishing Pioneer (1938-2004) R.I.P.”

  1. Hi Vin,long time…

    Very sad isn’t it. I spoke to John a few days before he suddenly died. But he did pass away very peacefully without suffering.

    In case you’re interested, a memorial service will be held on April 24 in NYC (probably at Julliard).

    Hope you’re well,
    Robert

  2. I saw that John Evans had passed away – and yes he was a visionary and a renegade at the same time. He unfortunately attracted some strange people at the same time – like Vin – who to the best of my knowledge added little of value if anything to the party. Delphi was run by engineers – who knew little of media and who were utterly flummoxed by the entry of WWW. If it wasn’t dos/ascii based it was of no interest. For the sake of accuracy – which is missing in Vin’s self serving tribute – Murdoch employed Dr. Greg Clarke and Dr Alan Baratz to run Delphi – which then passed to Anthea Disney and was then sold onto MCI as part of an extraordinary stock deal. Please, in future, get the facts straight – and if you are able, provide details of Vin’s disappearance, present whereabouts and contact details.

    1. Dear Jaan: Yup, I’m sure a strange person who brought little value and disappeared! During the year of your comment, the Economist was quoting my expertise in its cover story ‘Who Killed the Newspaper?’. I’d also given the Republic of Singapore’s annual Media Lecture, in its National Library. And a year later was co-chairing and co-moderating the World Association of Newspapers’ ‘Beyond the Printed Word’ conference in Vienna. Do your research before commenting.

      What you posted that comment, the executive who had engineered the sale of Delphi Internet Services Corp to News Corp. goaded me, “You should reply to Jaan. You’ve got the goods to bury him.” I however chose to be merciful.

      Yet now more than a quarter century since you and I last saw each other, perhaps I should put the record straight. You were the central reason why News Corp. squandered perhaps its greatest opportunity, namely the formative position of owning and operating the world’s first online service with Internet access. Imagine the gargantuan commercial potential of having that early opportunity at the start of 1994 when few people yet had Internet access, unlike the 4.6 billion who do today, for whom Internet access has become their predominant means of obtaining news, entertainment (including streaming cinematic and television contents), and other information. What a fabulous opportunity you had but failed yourself, your employees, and News Corp.

      You claim that my commemorative remarks about the late John Evans included “a defamatory, damaging and grossly inaccurate description” of you. I don’t know if you’re now reading this from the banks of Broadbeach Waters or the emptiness of the Torres Strait, but from where I sit in Connecticut (another of your old stomping grounds), what can be proven accurate and true is not defamation by law, even when that truth and accurate description might be claimed damaging by its subject.

      Were I you, I’d worry more about from Michael Wolf’s best-selling 2008 book The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch. The following passage is from page 330:

      “In 1993, one of Murdoch’s longtime retainers, John Evans, a former classified ad salesman at the Village Voice who has developed a quirky interest in technology, gets Murdoch to buy a Massachusetts company called Delphi, which is the first and, at the time, only national Internet Provider—a concept that Murdoch, rest assured, does not grasp. Nevertheless, if Rupert is buying ‘the Net’ (in 1993 parlance), then everybody else in the media business better damn well be buying it too. Murdoch’s Delphi buy is essentially the first big investment in the Internet by any major media company But within the year it’s floundering—not least of all because he’s put Jaan Torv, Anna’s brother—‘the idiot brother-in-law,’ as he was known semiofficially around News—in charge. It is Delphi that, in 1995, is rolled into the brief, and much heralded, joint venture with MCI called iGuide, which shuts down a month later.”

      I respect your brother Hans’ business acumen (by the way, who was following me on Twitter for a number of years). Too bad that Hot Tomato didn’t work out for you (hey at least your siblings kept the second TO in the company name).

      But let’s get down to why I’m now replying to your comment. John Evans understood the huge potential in 1993 of owning and operating the world’s first online service to have Internet access. Wolf’s book describes him as “a former classified ad salesman at the Village Voice” which was historically true; yet Evans was more accurately the publisher of the News Corp.-owned Village Voice when News Corp. bought Delphi. And when negotiating its purchase, Evans told his counterpart at Delphi (who after the sale then took his profits from it and started his own company) that he himself was to become News Corp.’s senior officer at Delphi once the purchase closed. I’m sure that the money News Corp. paid for Delphi sealed the deal, yet that deal was also based on Delphi executives being assured that Evans, who was technosavvy, would be News Corp.’s senior executive at Delphi. However, once the sale closed, Delphi instead got you: someone with no experience or professional knowledge of the Internet, of proprietary online services, or about any other forms of computer-mediated technologies. Your background was as a disc jockey in Australia. Did sudden and surprising senior personnel change have been due to you being News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s then brother-in-law? What was the probability of that? Did someone want to prove his abilities to his brother-in-law? I had spent the previous nine years then as an executive at Reuters and the old United Press International (UPI), dealing with News Corp.’s New York Post and other print properties, and that’s what people at the Post told me when I asked them who you were. Was that hearsay? I tried to keep an open mind. My opinion at the onset was that maybe having Murdoch’s brother-in-law in charge would give Delphi added clout within News Corp.

      The same executive with whom Evans negotiated the purchase of Delphi had hired me to work with Evans at Delphi because of my experiences at Reuters and at UPI working with CompuServe, Prodigy, etc., as well as the nation’s daily newspapers He knew that in that era when online meant plugging a slow-speed modem into a home phone line, online and Internet was viable only for only textual contents. I joined Delphi the November morning after News Corp. purchased the company. And with the blessing of Delphi’s president, executive vice president, and vice president of business development, I began enlisting major newspapers and national magazines to provide their contents online via Delphi rather than via America Online, CompuServe, Genie, or Prodigy. Unlike you, I moved from Connecticut to Cambridge where Delphi was based.

      As I recollect, you showed up either the following or subsequent month, and were given space in Delphi’s offices. Moreover, Delphi also soon hired as an intern a Harvard University sophomore named James Murdoch to work under Delphi’s chief graphic artist, whose desk was adjacent to mine. James would occasionally show up for work. I remember one day when the artist was out sick and Delphi’s switchboard operator rang my phone, asking me if I’d seen James. When I told her no, she told me that Mr. Murdoch was calling James, and now wanted to know why he wasn’t at work; he insisted on talking to someone there and would I take the call? Rupert asked me when was the last time I’d seen James there. I wouldn’t lie, so I told him about that was two weeks earlier. A quarter of a century since, James has done quite well, despite that bad beginning. As myself the son of a publisher, I sympathize with him and what pressures he might have been under back then.

      I have three fond memories of you at Delphi. The first was during the Spring of 1994 when Delphi purchased two of the first Intel Pentium (i.e., x8-based chip) personal computers available. One went to Delphi’s senior vice president of software engineering, who was also Delphi’s chief programmer. The other Pentium went to you. We’d watch you hunt-and-peck email your text or email messages on that powerful machine’s keyboard. We shouldn’t have been surprised that you didn’t know how to touch-type. Yet what a waste of that technology, which should instead have been used by some member of the programming team rather than as a bright, shiny toy for you. Rank had its privileges, no matter how inefficient.

      The second memory was how first confused then amused then alarmed we in the business development department were to discover that your strategies for Delphi appeared to be whatever Variety or the Hollywood Reporter were reporting that other media companies were doing online. Of course, other media companies didn’t have access to the Internet and were still playing catchup. Your strategies apparently weren’t to lead but to play catchup to those other online services trying to catchup. Since many of us arrived at Delphi’s offices in the mornings before you did and we too saw Variety and the Hollywood Reporter in the company mail, we eventually started a betting pool to verify that their reporters ‘wrote’ your strategies. Almost always a winning bet. Did this ‘strategy’ allow you to assure Rupert, or any others who called from News Corp., that Delphi too was doing the things reported in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter?

      My third fond memory of you was the day you called me on the carpet for not spending enough of the company’s monies on Travel & Entertainment. At UPI, a notoriously frugal company, I’d been taught to be parsimonious and efficient with company funds. You, however, told me that unless we spent all the corporate budget we were given for Travel & Entertainment, we wouldn’t be given as much of that budget the following year. So, you asked me if I could begin spending more, could travel on shorter notice, could stay at more expensive hotels, could take potential clients to more pricy restaurants, etc. I was amazed yet complied. I began making transcontinental luncheon plans at last-minute, became introduced to the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental hotel chains, and discovered some very fine restaurants. I wouldn’t have run a company that way, but then this policy wasn’t my choice. I still joke with my graduate students about that.

      And I have three less-than-fond memories of you. The first was my training my replacement. Late during the spring of 1994, you hired Matt Jacobsen to develop Delphi as an online provider of contents related to cinematic and broadcast media. Although the online bandwidth in 1994 didn’t allow Delphi or any other online service to stream audio or video content, Delphi could provide text-based spinoff contents related to radio and video programs (official ‘Simpsons’ discussion boards, ‘X-Files’ novelizations, Fox network program guides, etc.) So, it made sense to hire Matt, whose background was sales for News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox. When I had worked at UPI and at Reuters, we always had pairs of business development executives: one for print publishers and one for broadcasters, which also is why hiring Matt made sense to me. I like him and thought he made a great addition to team. I had helped train my broadcast counterparts at UPI and at Reuters, so I thought nothing unusual about helping Matt learn online.

      My second unfond memory of you came a few months later when on a routine payday I received a paycheck for an amount two weeks’ worth more than usual and stamped ‘Final Paycheck’. That surprised me because neither you nor anyone else at Delphi had ever complained about my work (that is except for you urging me to spend more money on Travel & Entertainment, which I’d subsequently been doing). I showed the paycheck to the vice president of business development, to whom I nominally directly reported. It surprised him; he said he no knowledge about it. He and I then went to the vice president of human resources. She looked at me and said, “he hasn’t told you?” He who, I asked. “Jaan,” she replied. She told the v.p. of business development and I that she had advised you against terminating me. Cursing, she said, “let’s go see him right now!” She interrupted a meeting you were having with Matt and asked, “You haven’t told Vin yet?” You replied, “No, but I was going to.” Her retort was, “had You better had thought of that before his final paycheck got into his hands.” That’s when you finally told me that I was no longer needed, and that Matt would be taking over my responsibilities, effective immediately.

      What then further surprised me about this wasn’t your mishandling it, but the lack of any transition. I’d spent the past nine months extensively traveling the United States, and using the connections I’d built doing a similar job the previous decade for UPI and for Reuters, to develop a network of daily newspapers and national magazines that at that time declared they then in 1994 wanted to go online via Delphi rather than any other online service. (Indeed, no newspapers or magazine worldwide would develop its own website on its own until 1995). Most of these deals were by then contract-ready: the publishers were waiting for draft contracts from Delphi, confident enough in Murdoch’s name not to go instead with any of our competitors. The only reason that we hadn’t given them contracts to sign was that our programmers hadn’t yet developed our proposed service and so News Corp.’s legal department hadn’t yet formulated a draft contract for us (Delphi lacked its own legal department, as I’m sure you know). Did you expect Matt to simply show up on the doorsteps of all these publishing potential partners and say, “Hi, Vin’s gone. I’m Matt!” I had never briefed Matt about any of those accounts before receiving this ‘Final Paycheck’. Moreover, I’d been using my own laptop computer and none of my work files were on any Delphi network. During that final encounter in your office, I asked you if you wanted me to brief Matt on my accounts before I left the building. The reason I asked that wasn’t because I was happy to be terminated but because I didn’t want my reputation in the media industry sullied by having Delphi potentially fail to follow through with these accounts. (One can always find another job, but it’s hard for one to find another industry.) You replied, “No, that won’t be necessary.”

      My final unpleasant memory of you occurred during a chance encounter with a Delphi executive five weeks later in a Harvard Square coffee shop. He told me that you and Matt were blaming me for the subsequent collapse of all the accounts on which I had spent the year working for Delphi. He knew the story of my termination and warned me that I was being made a scapegoat for them. So, I wasn’t surprised two weeks later when a certified letter from the News Corp. legal department arrived at my Cambridge home. It accused me of leaking confidential information after my termination to a magazine industry trade journal, an obscure one that I hadn’t even known existed. The letter included a clipping from it that quoted the new publisher of the Village Voice (a publication which News Corp. no longer owned) and the executive vice president of new media at Playboy magazine complaining about the collapse of their deals with Delphi. Each of those publications’ executives complained that I was no longer there. This cease-and-desist letter from News Corp. warned me to stop leaking confidential information and to to disparaging either Delphi or News Corp. lest they sue me.

      Perhaps you know or recollect my response. Because I hadn’t leaked any proprietary information to any trade journal or other media, I simply phoned the Village Voice publisher and the Playboy new media executive the trade journal quoted, neither of whom I had spoken with since before my termination, and read them the News Corp. cease-and-desist letter. The letter and its false allegations angered them almost as much as it had angered me. They agreed to testify in my defense should News Corp. wrongly sue me. And because I knew that I wasn’t the source of the trade journal story about Delphi, I knew that, should News Corp sue me, the trade journal’s reporter could truthfully testify in court that I wasn’t his apparently anonymous source. I then wrote and sent a certified letter back to the News Corp. Legal Dept. explaining those things then demanding that anyone or everyone at Delphi and at News Corp. cease and desist from disparaging me lest I sue. I sent by certified mail a copy of that letter to Alan Baratz, who I’d learned by then had been hired atop you at Delphi. That was the last I ever heard about the false changes or scapegoating about me. My understanding is that no one at either Delphi or News Corp. ever again lied about me for what certainly weren’t my failures. Faced with a false charge, I never even needed to contact an attorney. Total costs: $4 for two certified mailings plus another $4 for two long-distance phone calls to those former accounts.

      I don’t suppose you impressed Rupert by your management of Delphi. You certainly impressed in a bad way the scores of young adults who lost their jobs in the Delphi and the subsequent iGuide debacles. I wasn’t surprised that News Corp. decided to bring in atop of you someone who had actual credential and experience at computer-mediated technologies. I believe that John Evans would have had such knowledge and experience with online technologies to have foreseen that Delphi’s attempt to launch a proprietary version of Internet access would soon become dead-end, made obsolete (as were such attempts by America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy) by the open-source Mosaic browser that many of us at Delphi were already privately using on our personal computers at Delphi. Evans would have had the computer technology knowledge to talk to Delphi’s programmers; the publishing experience to deal with publishers both inside and outside News Corp.; the general technological knowledge and experience to know how the online world was changing; and the general management experience from being publisher of the Village Voice. Instead, Delphi got a disc jockey from 2SM. Evans himself purchased News Electronic Data from News Corp., renamed it BizTravel.com, and made a success of it during the 1990s as the predecessor of new media firms such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline. As News Corp.’s Martin Singerman is quoted in Evan’s obituary, “As far as I know, he was the first person in print publishing that understood what was happening with the Internet and publishing.” He was what you weren’t. Had Evans your position at Delphi during 1994, as had been his intention, online history would probably have been different. (As for Alan Baratz, by the way, he nowadays is CEO of D-Wave Systems, the first commercial company to develop and sell quantum computers).

      The month during which I received News Corp.’s cease-and-desist letter and replied with my own, I was hired by the executive with whom Evans negotiated the sale of Delphi to New Corp. As Oxford University has noted, at that executive’s new company in Cambridge, Mass., he, I, and others invented free email, the precursor to HotMail, Gmail, etc. I later founded a new media consulting company in Greenwich, Connecticut, and still run it, with media clients on five continents. I’ve co-chaired and co-moderated the World Association of Newspaper’s Beyond the Printed Word conference in Europe; am the first person, only consultant, and only academician quoted in the U.S. Congressional Research Bureau’s report the U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition; and have given the Republic of Singapore’s annual National Media Lecture. And since 2007 I’ve been teaching postgraduate New Media Management at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, America’s leading broadcast media school. The New Media Business postgraduate course which I wrote is a required course for Media Management master’s degree students. I’ve recently spoken at the International Media Management Academics Association in Qatar and will do so this spring at the World Media Economics and Management Conference in Rome. The last that I knew, at the time of your complain above, you were running a radio station on Thursday island in the Torres Strait, one of the remotest parts of Australia. I think history has judged which of us knew beter how to manage a new media company. Substance over superfice.

      Walk quietly into the dusk, Jaan. Should you like to litigate what I’ve stated, know that in 1994 when I received News Corp.’s cease-and-desist letter I prepared documentary paperwork for litigation in case News Corp. wrongly sued me or if I wanted to sue it. I still have the letters of attestation the publisher of the Village Voice and the Playboy executives wrote about the matter, and I’m still friends with Delphi’s senior officers from those days. It would be my and their words and documents against you.

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