Who I Am -- and What I Hope to Do

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 23, 2005

I'm the new ombudsman on the block. I have two goals in this job: to foster good journalism and to increase understanding between The Post and its readers.

I took the job, leaving a company (and its owners, the Newhouse family) I loved, because I believe I can use a lifetime of journalism experience to deal with many of the perilous issues faced by newspaper journalism, the journalism that I know and love best.

Another reason is that I care about readers -- all kinds of readers. I read at least three, and sometimes more, newspapers a day; I started reading newspapers as a kid and wish we had more young readers today. The Post is a fine newspaper, and this region is lucky to have newspaper owners willing to spend the money it takes in a tough economy to provide deep local, national and international coverage -- as well as to support an independent ombudsman.

But I wouldn't have taken this job if I thought The Post was perfect. A newspaper is either improving every day or falling behind. My mission, as I see it, is to encourage improvement and to deal with the needs of readers. I want to create a dialogue with readers and the Post newsroom. While I can't promise to resolve every reader's complaint or query, I promise to tackle in my weekly column the ones I find most frequent and significant.

I want to thank my predecessor, Michael Getler, who has helped immeasurably in this transition and who leaves me with big shoes to fill. Mike worked at The Post most of his adult life. I'm a newcomer, and I expect a steep learning curve.

Readers, you can help this dialogue by not only calling or e-mailing with complaints, but also by letting me know when you like something, when there's a story The Post ought to be pursuing, or when there's something you don't understand about a story or a news judgment.

The chasm that separates readers and journalists can often be a deep one, and I would like to help bridge that gap. Besides the column, I will be communicating daily with Post staffers about what readers are telling me. I also hope to write occasional longer pieces in Outlook that will try to illuminate how journalists think and act, how we report, and the methods we use.

I bring a strong set of values to this job and a history. First, the history. I consider myself half-Texan, half-Minnesotan, all-American. I am a reporter in my bones. Being away from the news while backpacking (or, recently, hiking in Wyoming when Hurricane Katrina struck) has always made me uneasy. I'm a lifer in journalism and remember my excitement as a toddler watching the presses roll on a Sunday night. My vocation was probably sealed when my father, a reporter, met my mother in a newsroom in San Marcos, Tex., where she was putting out her high school paper.

I grew up in San Antonio and lived in El Paso, Houston, Corpus Christi and Austin, and on a ranch in West Texas that my mother's parents homesteaded. I was a reporter and editor in high school and at the Daily Texan at the University of Texas in Austin, where I got a degree in journalism. I interned at the Austin American-Statesman and worked in radio and television in Corpus Christi because I couldn't get a newspaper job in 1962 except on the women's pages. After a year, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times hired me as a copy editor, and I was back where I belonged.

In 1965, I moved to the Minneapolis Star. In Texas and Minnesota, I covered cops and courts, city hall, suburbs, state legislatures and politics. I became the Star's city editor and then moved to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I became managing editor and then senior vice president and editor. I have spent most of my career in local news, where most newspapers live and die.

In 1990, I became the Washington bureau chief for Newhouse Newspapers. I also supervised Religion News Service for 10 years and direct a Newhouse minority scholarship program. Reporting on national and international issues has broadened me, but I still tell young reporters they should start by covering cops and finding out what's happening on the street.

My values simply are these: Journalism should be as accurate as human beings can make it and it should be enlightening, fair, honest and as transparent as possible. Mistakes should be acknowledged and quickly corrected. When you finish reading The Post, you should feel more informed than when you began. I truly believe a democracy can't operate without a free press. But I also can't live without "Doonesbury" or "Opus" on Sunday.

After his newspaper career, my father, the late Henry Howell, had a 12:15 p.m. radio show on WOAI, aimed at farmers and ranchers while they were eating lunch.

He began that show by saying: "Good afternoon, farm and ranch friends."

That always stuck with me: Journalists should think of readers as their friends. Because if we're not in this business to inform and help readers, we're not doing our jobs.

Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company