Timmons left mark in city of 10,000 journalists

The Scripps Howard editor, who died of cancer, helped make the biggest stories moving and memorable to readers around the world.

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As I delivered one of my mother's eulogies, my eyes met those of Karen Timmons. Karen was already familiar with the story I was about to tell to put a little humour in one of the saddest days of my life. She was my boss at Scripps Howard News Service in Washington and remembered my telling it to her years earlier. On one July 4 weekend, my mother filled in for a date who cancelled on me at the last minute. My mother, a great adventurer, said: "I want to do everything she would have done." I told the gathering what I had told my mom: "Well, not everything, Mom."

The tale brought laughter from the funeral audience, and I am sure kindled a few memories for Karen. During the nights we spent editing news stories to send out to the world, Karen had heard many of my stories about my mother, who had served in the Women's Army Corps during the Second World War and lived in Europe and Africa afterwards. Hectic deadlines never prevented Karen from taking time to listen, a trait that helped make her a great editor and a wonderful boss.

When the bad news came recently via e-mail, as it does too often in the electronic age, that Karen had lost her battle with ovarian cancer at 58 on Oct 17, I knew the journalism community would be mourning one of its best. I also knew that in places such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where newspapers run lots of wire service copy, the work of a Karen Timmons and editors like her is unrecognised by readers.

Though a talented writer, Karen Timmons's byline seldom appeared on stories, nor would she be seen on the TV shows that turn print journalists into celebrities. Thousands of miles away from New York and Washington, in places where Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are known to millions, the name Karen Timmons would not register. More than 10,000 journalists work in Washington. For every Bob Woodward or CNN White House correspondent, there are hundreds of reporters and editors whose names are known mostly to their sources and other journalists.

Little glory comes in working for a wire service. For those who do, the passion for getting the news, writing memorable prose and serving readers' interests burns as strongly as it does at the big-name papers and network newsrooms. Arguably the greatest Second World War correspondent of them all, Ernie Pyle, was a Scripps Howard man. Karen's deft editing skills helped make the news stories of our times moving and memorable to readers around the world.

As Peter Copeland, editor and general manager of Scripps Howard News Service, said: "Every story Karen touched was improved, and every person she met came away feeling better about themselves. "We knew her in life as smart, loving and fun. In the end, we saw her grit and determination, still editing stories from her 'couch bureau' when she was too weak to stand." It was that passion for the job that led Karen to rise from reporting for UPI to managing a Washington bureau that sent stories to more than 350 newspapers every day.

As the nature of the news business and Washington bureaus changed, Karen's job changed with it. She helped develop news magazines for the Scripps Howard-owned HGTV and Foodnetwork, which both can be seen in more than 85 million households. Scripps Network programming is aired in 86 countries. The internet revolution, of course, made multitasking a managing editor's mantra. But Karen never lost her wonderful way with words and with people.

Her obituary, written by one of the reporters she had edited for years, said it best: "[She] developed into a firm but gentle editor, combining a love of the language and fidelity to proper grammar with an empathetic touch for prickly writers reluctant to change even a comma." Yes, "prickly" was the right word to describe the culture of journalism in the US capital. The dream destination of reporters from Albany, New York, to Albania, Washington, produces its own kind of journalistic ego. Proximity to power and being able to write about it serve as an addictive intoxicant.

Karen was at her best when massaging big egos. "Her special skill, though, was helping others become better professionally and personally, which she did with her own brand of tough love," said her obituary. "She expected colleagues to work hard, but happily rewarded them with praise, treats, prizes and parties." I was a wonderful beneficiary of Karen's kindness and editing skills. She fought for me to write a column, and when I did, her guiding touch helped ensure the writing was genuine and mattered.

Long after I had left Scripps Howard, Karen and I would occasionally share a seat on a commuter train. I was then looking after my elderly mother, and Karen, along with the man in her life, was restoring an old farmhouse in a small Maryland town. Karen and I would trade the latest journalism gossip. But we would also talk about family - Karen loved bragging about the accomplishments of her son, Michael, a chef - and friends and how quickly the years were passing by.

Karen had recently married her long-time boyfriend and added Clipper to her surname. A memorial service for Karen will be held in November at the National Press Club. That is, after all, the gathering place in Washington for the hundreds of bureau reporters and wire service workers whose passion for their work will never be matched by public recognition. Karen's spirit will be right at home. @Email:rpretorius@thenational.ae