Journalism’s less-visible heroes

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The New York Times newsroom


By Caitlin Kelly

To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.

They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.

While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.

One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs  — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.


To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.

One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.

I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.

This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.

We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.

Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.

My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.

And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.

The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!

Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.


Our skills and dedication  — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.



11 thoughts on “Journalism’s less-visible heroes

  1. Sorry to hear of your loss – my condolences. ⚘ And as for that ridiculous and dangerous Putin puppet, I don’t know what to say. Putin wants to bring the US to its knees, and he’s using that ignorant puffball to do it. I’ve been blown away by the similarities between what’s happening in the US and the start of fascism/Nazism in Italy and Germany (I did a degree on this in uni and have been left speechless at times at what I see). My parents, both WWII veterans (my dad Dunkirk, D-Day and Market Garden) would be broken-hearted – I’m glad they’re not here to see this.

    1. Thanks…Zvi was a pip.

      Having read about the Weimar Republic is useful. I dom’t think we’re there yet but it’s a terrible time in American politics….now the Democrats and THEIR minions are racing to distance themselves from newly elected NYC pol Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allegiance to democratic socialism — even though millions of us are sick to DEATH of shitty public policy and the daily dismantling of every possible health and environmental protection.

      I wonder when else in U.S. history (ever?) there were darker days of such useless political “leadership.”

  2. I hope Trump is outed as a fellow traveler of Putin’s before he can spoil the image of the press irrevocably in the eyes of the Republicans. So far they seem to believe everything he utters no matter how ridiculous. He’s turning the U.S. into a third world country with a third world leader and he must be stopped by a good turn out of Democratic voters in November. The Democrats need to win control of at least one but preferably both houses in order to checkmate the most destructive and divisive President ever, before he can bring the Country to it’s knees.

    1. Yes to all of this.

      The Democrats remain divided as to how much radical change they can afford to represent. I donn’t think they GET IT — the reason Trump won was utter desperation with status quo.

  3. i am sorry for the loss of your friend/colleague, and you are so right, the behind the scenes people are the ones who make things actually happen. i am saddened, angered, and befuddled, to say the least, with the current state of our government leaders. i am shocked by the lack of action in so many people to speak out or act against them. i have some hope when seeing the primary results from yesterday, though it will take much more than trends or close wins to create real change. the president’s treatment of the press is abhorrent and shows his fear of all they do and may expose. he is no match and he knows it, like the bully finally backed in a corner, using everything he’s got to fight his way out and regain control once more. i refuse to go quietly and accept any of this.

    1. Thanks.

      What disgusts me is the lack of respect for the jobs we do — and many of them involve investigating criminal behavior by the wealthy, who have powerful allies and lawyers to protect themselves….like Trump and DeVos and his billionaire cabinet, Look at Paul Manafort!

      Inciting violence against journalists — as Trump does at every rally — is appalling and endangers people who are working professionals. NONE of us should be afraid (!???) of the POTUS, for heaven’s sake.

      But he loves it. LOVES it. That’s the true mark of a bully. And millions admire him. That’s terrifying to me.

      1. yes, it is the mark of a bully. what scares me about getting their base whipped up about the ‘violence against the press’ idea, is that someone, who may be a bit unhinged to begin with, takes it upon themselves to carry through in this vein. journalists, now, more than ever, are literally under the gun.

  4. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail

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