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Liz Donovan, 63; Aided Watergate Reporters at Post

Liz Donovan had roles in two Pulitzer-winning investigations.
Liz Donovan had roles in two Pulitzer-winning investigations. (Photo By Jared Lazarus/miami Herald - Photo By Jared Lazarus/miami Herald)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

Liz Donovan, 63, a news researcher whose meticulous files helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their investigation of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, died Dec. 9 at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Ga. She had lung cancer.

Ms. Donovan was a Washington Post researcher from 1968 to 1975 and kept voluminous records that Woodward and Bernstein regularly used in their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. She later spent 23 years at the Miami Herald, where she was part of an investigative team that also won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1999.

A year before the Watergate case, Ms. Donovan worked on The Post's 1971 stories about the Pentagon Papers, outlining the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. On a library Web site, she described her work as "climbing shelves in a storage room, pulling dusty boxes of clips on Vietnam from 6-8 years back. . . . It was a dirty, frustrating job but worth every moment to be able to help publish such important stories."

After the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, Ms. Donovan became "our 'go-to' person in the library," Bernstein said in an interview Thursday. Woodward called her "a great, imaginative researcher who helped our coverage at a number of critical points."

Before computerized records were available, Ms. Donovan read scores of magazines and newspapers for references to the Watergate burglary. She maintained detailed files that became an indispensable source for the paper's coverage of the growing scandal that ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

"She knew exactly what to look for, where to find it, how it fit," Bernstein said. "And most important of all for Bob and me, we had the comfort and certainty that nothing was being overlooked."

Ms. Donovan's name is listed in the acknowledgments of Woodward and Bernstein's 1974 book about Watergate, "All the President's Men."

Elisabeth Lacey Donovan was born in Rochester, N.Y., and grew up in the nearby small town of Ontario, N.Y. She was a graduate of Marymount College (now part of Fordham University) in Tarrytown, N.Y., and did a year of graduate study at the London School of Economics before coming to The Post.

After working in the paper's library, she became a researcher on the National desk and worked on some of The Post's first computer-assisted reporting projects. She also did research for longtime cartoonist Herbert Block, or Herblock.

In 1975, Ms. Donovan left The Post to travel in Central America. She ran a health-food store in Black Mountain, N.C., for several years before moving to Miami and joining the Herald in 1981.

She was a well-liked figure at the newspaper and assisted on a project on voter fraud, which won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1999. She retired in 2004 as the paper's director of newsroom research.

Ms. Donovan was an early authority on computerized research and spoke at journalism conferences throughout the country.

She had lived in Murphy, N.C., since 2004 and maintained two blogs, one on information research and another on photographs of the North Carolina mountains.

Survivors include her husband of 19 years, Joseph Masellis of Murphy; her mother, Charlotte Donovan of Ontario, N.Y.; two stepsons, Michael Masellis and Mark Masellis, both of Roanoke; three brothers; and two grandchildren.

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