Kathy Gosnell, veteran L.A. Times copy editor who perfected the paper’s signature stories, dies at 75
Kathleen Gosnell Seiler, a consummate copy editor whose meticulous blue pen perfected the Los Angeles Times’ signature stories for 23 years, has died at age 75.
Her family said Gosnell suffered a brain hemorrhage after a fall at her home and died Dec. 1 in a hospital in DeKalb, Ill., where she lived.
Gosnell was a native of DeKalb. She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a journalism degree in 1970 and worked in the Chicago area before relocating to Southern California five years later and joining The Times.
Gosnell’s proof pages were a sight to behold, said Thomas Curwen, a Times narrative writer: copy circled on nearly every page, every sentence and paragraph — and that was after three editors had already combed for errors.
“This was not a gray area: A participle properly modified a noun or it didn’t,” Curwen said. “She represented an old guard at the paper that recognized how important copy editors were as a last bastion to assure there was clarity and lucidity and that unambiguous facts were being represented in every paper.”
Her work paid off when she and her colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news — stories written as they unfolded, the hardest kind to get right in every detail. The 1995 prize entry captured the chaos and devastation of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which killed at least 57 people and left more than $40 billion in damage.
Gosnell was also instrumental in creating the 1995 Los Angeles Times style and usage guide, drawing on her love of journalism and language to make the newspaper more credible — and also more equitable.
“She was very knowledgeable about the use of language, how to be most effective in describing daily events,” said Jim LaVally, who worked with her on the Metro news desk.
The stylebook overhaul “made a big difference in stories about women, and the language used to describe people who aren’t white heterosexual males,” said Judy Dugan, a former deputy editorial page editor for The Times.
Gosnell was constantly updating the style guide, but she had little need for it herself. It was all in her head.
“We all knew our grammar and spelling, and we all were ‘Jeopardy!'-type masters of trivia, esoterica and arcana,” said David Bowman, who worked with Gosnell on the copy desk, “but she really did serve as a walking, talking in-house stylebook — a font of institutional knowledge.”
LaVally said Gosnell came into journalism when women editors were rarer than they are today. It wasn’t easy. But she had the credibility and moxie to stand up to high-ego hot shots who resisted changes she knew would make the story better.
“It wasn’t unusual for section editors to go nuts when they got her proofs,” Curwen said.
“She had a confidence and a faith in her own ability that allowed her to stand up for what she felt was right,” said LaVally.
Gosnell’s daughter, Jessie Seiler, grew up at The Times’ landmark headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, making a fort under her mother’s desk and reading while her mother worked on the Pulitzer entry. She remembers watching from The Times’ 10th floor cafeteria window as the landscape undulated with earthquake aftershocks.
Seiler, 34, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, said her mother brought her journalistic ethics home. Nonpartisanship was sacrosanct; there were never political yard signs or bumper stickers in the Gosnell household.
“That integrity was such a huge part of her daily life, and it informed who I was,” said Seiler, who is in an epidemiology doctoral program at the University of Washington.
After retiring from The Times in 2012, Gosnell worked as a freelance book and articles editor and volunteered as a CASA foster child advocate and a youth tutor.
In addition to her daughter, Kathy is survived by her siblings, Bob Gosnell, Mary Koczan, Mike Gosnell and Judy Ewens. She was preceded in death by her son, Sandy Seiler.
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