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.