Page 1: Biography
Litman, June Margaret
This biography, written by Janet McCallum, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
June Margaret Allen was born on 13 March 1926 in New Plymouth, the daughter of Nellie May Bendall and her husband, Arthur Squire Allen, a company secretary who was later a nurseryman. Leaving New Plymouth Girls’ High School at 16, June joined the Taranaki Herald in September 1942 as a cadet reporter on a weekly wage of £2. 7s. 8d. With no previous training, she learnt by doing and became ‘adept at reporting on the run’. In 1949 she went to England, where she worked as a reporter for 18 months, an experience she always recalled with nostalgia.
After returning to New Zealand she resumed work with the Taranaki Herald and in 1953 became a sub-editor. On 13 November 1959 in New Plymouth she married Paul Emil Litman, a public servant, who was born in Germany. June Litman became chief sub-editor in 1960 and news editor in 1976, probably the first woman news editor of a daily paper in New Zealand.
Known to her family and friends as ‘AJ’, and barely five feet tall, Litman was a feisty woman who did not hesitate to excoriate young reporters for sloppy use of language, or to tear up their copy. However, she also helped struggling newcomers, encouraging them to work a little harder and not to give up. Over the years she taught many cadets and trained others in the art of sub-editing. Although they feared her caustic tongue, they were invariably grateful for the grounding she gave them in journalism.
Litman refused to accept poor punctuation and incorrect spelling, and her insistence on good English style included avoiding split infinitives and misrelated participles. Nor did she care for articles that were ‘full of clichés, euphemisms, superlatives, ambiguities and inaccuracies’. She demanded that young reporters learn to write plain English and be precise in their use of words, never saying ‘at about’ when they meant ‘at’ or ‘about’, or writing ‘ironically’ when they meant ‘paradoxically’.
Her energy and technical skills amazed younger reporters. One remembered how she would return from a heavy meeting of the Taranaki Education Board with a handful of stories already written, edited and headed, proceed to pick up the phone to take reams of copy from a reporter at Stratford, then put together a woman’s page followed by one on the arts in Taranaki. Finally she would light a cigarette and look for something to do. Her work habits were extraordinary: she invariably got to the office at 3.30 a.m.
Many stories are told of Litman’s habits in the news room. A problem with rubbish bins mysteriously bursting into flame stopped when she gave up smoking at work. She was known as the ‘Screaming Skull’: when she wanted a reporter her yells could be heard across the street from the Herald building. At all-male meetings of local farmers and county councils it was feared her presence would act as a restraint, but she was unfazed by their drinking and swearing and often simply swore back at them.
Outside her work she was a keen member of New Plymouth theatre societies and a supporter of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. When she retired on 21 June 1986, after nearly 44 years as a newspaper journalist, the front page of the Taranaki Herald was devoted to recording the tributes of her colleagues and former pupils. Among the anecdotes and photographs was a Tom Scott cartoon, featuring Litman at her desk with a burning rubbish bin in the background. After retiring she became a tutor for a New Zealand News Limited sub-editing training course.
June Litman died in New Plymouth on 9 April 1991. Her husband had died in 1979; there were no children of the marriage. In 1991 a group of her friends and former colleagues established the June Litman Memorial Trust to mark Litman’s outstanding contribution to the newspaper industry and the enormous input she had into journalism and the training of journalists. The trust assists young Taranaki people attending approved journalism courses.