Deborah Howell, the Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service, was named ombudsman of The Washington Post yesterday, a job in which she will serve as independent critic of the newspaper on behalf of its readers.
Howell will take over the job later this year from Michael Getler, 69, who became ombudsman in November 2000. He had served for a quarter-century as a Post reporter and editor, followed by four years as editor of the International Herald Tribune.
Deborah Howell is Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service.
Howell, 64, is a veteran of the news business who is active in national journalism organizations and has described herself as "feisty and aggressive." She will have an office in the paper's fifth-floor newsroom, a weekly column on the paper's editorial page and a two-year contract with a possible one-year extension by mutual agreement. Getler also writes a weekly internal memo to the paper's reporters and editors.
The newspaper's ombudsman is the readers' representative and receives, investigates and reports on complaints on a wide range of topics, sometimes suggesting how to do better. Only about three dozen newspapers have such posts. The Post has had ombudsmen since 1970. Most have been news veterans.
Howell's appointment comes as The Post's editors struggle to reverse recent circulation declines driven in part by competition from cable television, the Internet and other media outlets. The rise of bloggers and media-focused Web sites also produces more frequent, pointed scrutiny for all newspapers.
Being the ombudsman, Getler said, is "a large job that has become larger as the Internet has grown and use of e-mail has grown." He said he receives hundreds of e-mails, 15 to 20 telephone calls and a letter or two each day, although many are about general journalism topics.
Howell, who lives in Montgomery County, has worked in Washington since 1990, when she joined Newhouse. She supervises a staff of 32 that has had one Pulitzer Prize winner and three finalists during her tenure.
She also oversees Religion News Service and the Newhouse Minority Scholarship Program. She serves on the boards of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Foundation, the National Press Foundation and the International Women's Media Foundation.
Born in Texas, she worked in newspapers in her home state before going to the Minneapolis Star, where she rose to assistant managing editor-news, and then to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she was senior vice president and editor.
Howell wrote in an e-mail yesterday that she was not ready to leave her current job, but "the leadership of the Post was persuasive that I could bring some wisdom and spark to help an excellent paper be even better."
She was asked to apply for the job and became the strong consensus candidate of the newspaper's chief executive, Donald E. Graham; publisher Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. and top editors, according to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. The editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, on whose page the column appears, also played a role in the decision. Downie said Howell probably will begin work this fall, but the date depends on selection of her successor at Newhouse.
Downie described Getler as a "terrific ombudsman" even though the two often disagree, and said he expected Howell would share the same "very strong principles and values."
"She is particularly good at looking at journalism from a reader's point of view," Downie said. "She is not shy about her views."
In fact, Howell wrote, she keeps a dummy hand grenade on one side of her desk, as well as a jar inscribed "Miracles" on the other. "If one doesn't work," she said, "I can always try the other."