By Althea Billings///Features Editor
“ I remember once driving into a hurricane on the Eastern shore. It was predicted that there was going to be this amazing storm and they wanted direct coverage of it, so I had to get up before dawn and get in my car and drive in, which was kind of crazy. I can’t believe my editors asked me to do it.”
This may not sound like the voice of a college dean, but before becoming the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Catherine Kodat was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun from 1980 to 1987.
In 1980 Kodat began working at the Baltimore Sun in the Circulation department while still an undergraduate at the University of Baltimore. The benefit of this position was that it required Kodat to join the union, the Newspaper Guild, which was an AFL-CIO affiliate.
“If you became a member of the union, one of the agreements that the union had with management was that whenever there was a job that opened up anywhere in the building, a union member would get first consideration for moving forward,” Kodat said. This allowed Kodat to move up, and in her senior year of college, a job in the newsroom opened up.
“It’s a very old position, it used to be called “copy boy” back in the days when newsrooms were all men, and it was basically just a glorified gopher. You would get coffee for people, you would run errands, it dates all the way back to when a newspaper was entirely a paper-flow system with these little baskets on the desks,” Kodat said.
Six months later, a position as an editorial assistant opened up, and Kodat took it.
“I took dictation from reporters who were in the field and I did the weather table. That was a great time to be working. It was the Reagan-Carter campaign and we had reporters in the field covering the campaign.”
Midway through 1981, a job as a reporter finally opened up.
“Reporting, when I was in the newsroom in the ’80s, was, and I think it probably still is, very hierarchical, you started out at the bottom and you worked your way up, and the bottom was cops,” Kodat said. “I had to learn all the 10 codes, which the officers use to talk back and forth with each other. I learned very quickly to listen for a signal 13, which was officer in distress, and to pay attention when there was a signal 13 because it usually meant that there was something going down.”
Kodat became a cop reporter at a particularly interesting time.
“I was doing cops for about two and a half years. That was in the middle of the ’80s in Baltimore, in the middle of the cocaine, crack cocaine epidemic. There were some really horrific crimes that I covered, some really awful murders.”
As a cop reporter, Kodat spent time in the police headquarters, but also had to chase stories herself.
“When I became a cop reporter… when stuff was happening, there was nothing that could replace being on the scene. I had a little — it was my first car, it was a little Volkswagen Bug, and I had an atlas, a Baltimore city atlas, that I got into the habit of marking,” Kodat said.
This was a habit inherited by another reporter.
“He told me ‘One thing you’re going to want to do is start to mark places where things happen. It’s the only way you’re going to know if there’s patterns, like if a particular place has a higher than normal incidence of arson, or if a certain area is looking like it’s starting to become a drug market. Don’t just take the cop’s word for it, you need to do your own reporting.’ So it was marked up with fires and murders and homicides, rapes, all from my years of doing cops,” Kodat said.
Kodat was a cop reporter for around two and a half years, and notes that it always surprised her how forthcoming the cops would be with information.
“At the very beginning it always surprised me that nine times out of ten, they would tell me [what was going on]. … If you’re in public service… it’s incumbent on you to understand that you are a public servant, and the role of a reporter, if the reporter is doing her job correctly, is to be a public servant also,” Kodat said. “To serve the public, to tell them the news, to tell them what’s going on, so that they can make informed decisions about how they want to live, the kinds of people they want to elect, the laws that they want to see passed or changed.”
After working as a cop reporter, Kodat progressed to a general assignment reporter, specializing in neighborhood issues, and later became a rewrite person. In this position, Kodat would take notes from reporters in the field and assemble them into stories.
“Still to this day there is no city that I know as well as Baltimore,” Kodat said. “I had to look at the map, plot it out and memorize where I was going to go, and then just get in the car and go. And that just gives you a sense of the place and the people and what their issues are and how a place is unique, how different cities manage their problems.”
After seven years at the Sun, Kodat decided to return to graduate school at Boston University to study literature.
“Aspects of the job were really wonderful, I learned a lot in a really short amount of time, but by the time I got to be in my late twenties, early thirties, I had just gotten married, the newsroom, that kind of work, you have to be really flexible. You need to be able to get up and go somewhere at four o’clock in the morning or get sent somewhere at a moment’s notice,” Kodat said.
It was around this time that the news market in Baltimore was changing. The Sun’s competitor, the Baltimore News-American, which was a Hearst chain paper, folded in Kodat’s final year at the Baltimore Sun. Additionally, the Baltimore Sun and its two papers, the Morning Sun and the Evening Sun, were bought by a multi-media corporation, the Times-Mirror Corporation, now the Tribune Company.
“Looking back, it felt like the beginning of the end. It was this privately owned paper that because it was privately owned by a family in the city had a real sense of duty to the city and to the state of Maryland. [It then] moved into a corporate ownership where the main concern was generating profits for the shareholders of this large conglomeration,” Kodat said.
Soon after the sale went through, the union contract came up for review, and a strike was staged. Kodat remembers this as difficult.
“It was not a long strike, but it was in its own way traumatic. If you have this regular routine that you’ve been doing for seven or eight years where you go into work everyday, a place where you feel like family, where even your editors feel like family, to then be told, nope you can’t go in, you can’t work, here’s your picket assignment,” Kodat said. “It was really tough. I remember my editor at the time, Rebecca Corbett, was the Metro editor, a really good friend of mine, but because she was management, she had to go into work, and I couldn’t bring myself to yell at her when she was driving in.”
The strike happened about a month before Kodat was planning on leaving the Sun, but in the wake of it she decided to turn in her resignation early.
During her time at the Sun, Kodat was witness to increasing change in the city.
“Baltimore was in many ways a southern city,” Kodat said. While she was a reporter in Baltimore, the city elected its first black mayor. “The power structure in the city was majority white, but the city itself was majority black. That transformation happened over the course of the ’80s while I was there. It was really important to watch it and see it and understand it.”
In addition to the changing racial structures in Baltimore, Kodat was witness to the beginning of computerization and modernization, and of the trends that govern contemporary journalism. Despite all the change in journalism and in her own life, she still enjoys the daily paper.
“I still read the New York Times every day, and when I can get the paper edition, there’s something very satisfying about spreading it out on the kitchen table when I’m having my coffee.” Kodat said.