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CBS News Pioneer Shevlin’s Long Road to the Top

The world, and network television, was a different place when Patricia Shevlin first went to work at CBS News in 1973. She got a foot in the door the way many women did then, as a secretary, for the team that produced the network’s Saturday-morning children’s news breaks, In the News. “It’s funny now because we hardly have any secretaries, so people start on a whole different track,” Shevlin says.

Shevlin’s career track shifted quickly and dramatically, as she moved from secretary to researcher, then associate producer, producer and senior producer, with stints at various times on CBS Morning News and CBS Evening News before being named executive producer of CBS Evening News’ weekend editions 11 years ago. Along the way, Shevlin won eight Emmys, but the big prize came recently when she was selected to lead the new CBS Evening News team, giving Shevlin the distinction of being the first female executive producer of the CBS weeknight newscast and just the fourth female nightly news EP ever in network TV.

“I could never have believed that I would have this job when I started at CBS,” Shevlin says. “You thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to be an associate producer, that would be so cool,’ because it was so rare for women to do anything like that. There was one woman executive producer at CBS News then, Joan Richman, who was executive producer of the weekend news and one of the few women who were prominent in those days. She was tough, no-nonsense, and could hold her own in a very tough world. Yet she was somebody who was willing to talk to anybody who was looking for career advice, and I went to her and talked to her about that. If there was a role model, she was it.”

Shevlin had another TV role model as a girl in the ’60s: NBC newswoman Nancy Dickerson. Shevlin says she would rarely see a woman on a newscast back then, but was home sick from school one day when she spotted Dickerson doing an afternoon news break. “She came on and she looked great and she delivered the news and I asked my mother, ‘Do they let girls do news?’” Shevlin recalls.

The television landscape underwent wholesale changes over the years, and women increasingly got the chance to do news, including Katie Couric, who held down the nightly news anchor’s chair at CBS for five years before 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley took over June 6 with the broadcast mired in last place.

“If I say we’re not going to worry about the ratings at first, it probably doesn’t sound true, but it is,” Shevlin says. “I think we just need to go on the air and do the best broadcast that we can and hope the viewers also think it’s the best broadcast they can find.”

The new CBS Evening News team has tweaked the broadcast slightly by making subtle alterations, such as using different headline graphics and music. But more obvious, large-scale changes—expanded coverage of the Afghanistan war and the human effect of the stalled U.S. economy—are part of the strategy to revamp the newscast and try to get it out of its long-running ratings funk.

“I think every broadcast reflects the anchor, so I think this has to reflect Scott’s personality, his voice,” Shevlin says. “He is a smart, tough, hard-news guy who cares a lot about people, a lot about people in America who are out of work, and a lot about the men and women who are serving overseas. So you’ll see a lot of that in the broadcast.”

CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who has known Shevlin for 30 years and hired her as senior producer for the CBS Evening News when he was executive producer in the ’90s, picked her to head up the new nightly news team.

“She has just always been such a pro,” Fager says. “Pat’s so good with stories. She has the experience and the ability to help our stories be better focused and to make sure that stories are well-told, well-written and with a sense of priority in terms of original reporting. Pat has more experience with these things than just about anybody in the business. That is a huge part of why I think she’s a great asset in that job.”

The decision to put Shevlin in charge of the Evening News was not finalized, though, until Fager spoke with Pelley, who also is managing editor of the newscast. Fager worked closely with Pelley as executive producer of 60 Minutes.

“I hoped that they would hit it off and that they would have similar sensibilities,” Fager says. “I thought they would, knowing them both as well as I do, and I was happy to hear that they got along well and they really do like working with each other. An important part of how that broadcast comes out each night is how well that team works together, and I’m really confident that Scott and Pat will put together a terrific broadcast.”

One viewer CBS and Shevlin can count on is her proud papa, 91-year-old Jack Shevlin, who lives in New Jersey. “He’s proud of all his children, but he loves when one of them gets an extra little thing, so this is a great thing for him,” she says. “I’m thrilled he lived long enough to see this.”