Deborah Howell, 68

Former Post ombudsman helped break glass ceiling

Former Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell.
Former Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell. (Julia Ewan - Julia Ewan/The Washington Post )
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Deborah Howell, a trailblazing newspaper editor who led the innovative Washington bureau of the Newhouse News Service before serving as ombudsman of The Washington Post, died Jan. 2 in an accident near Blenheim, New Zealand. She was 68.

She was on vacation with her husband when she stepped out of a car to take a photograph. She was struck by an oncoming automobile. In New Zealand, drivers use the left side of the road, and her husband said he thought she looked the wrong way.

Ms. Howell, who published two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects when she was a top editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was a powerful presence in American journalism and was a particularly inspirational figure to women in a field long dominated by men.

She was among the most well-connected people in the business and prided herself on ferreting out the complete list of Pulitzer Prize finalists -- supposedly a closely guarded secret -- before anyone else. She also had a sharp eye for talent, and many of the journalists she nurtured in Minnesota or at Newhouse have become nationally recognized figures.

"She was a source of inspiration, having made her way up in this business at a time when the newsroom was hostile territory for women who didn't want to spend their careers writing wedding announcements," Time magazine reporter Karen Tumulty wrote in a blog. "Because of her, it was a lot easier for those of us who followed, both in the city rooms of newspapers around the country and here in Washington."

Innovative coverage

After being one of the few women to lead a major daily, Ms. Howell was hired to reshape the Washington bureau of the Newhouse News Service in 1990. Instead of concentrating on the government and institutional Washington, she focused coverage on such topics as race, gender and sexuality, technology and religion.

"They brought Deborah in to be an innovator," said Robert Hodierne, her deputy editor at Newhouse. "It was her concept."

"She developed beats and story ideas that people were not doing in Washington," said Linda Fibich, Ms. Howell's successor at Newhouse.

Small and slender, Ms. Howell "could curse like a longshoreman," Hodierne said, and had a managerial style that was alternately warm, cajoling and confrontational. She engendered deep loyalty and occasional fear among her staff and was proud of her two contradictory nicknames: Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

"She had a real hand grenade on her desk," Fibich said. "She had very high expectations, and when you didn't meet them, she didn't mind telling you so. But, on the other hand, she could be like a member of your family. I've never known anyone who was more supportive."

As the Internet cut into newspapers' profits, the Newhouse bureau shrank in size, and Ms. Howell retired in 2005 to join The Post as ombudsman, or readers' advocate. She wrote a weekly column until December 2008, taking the paper to task for its shortcomings and defending it when she felt it was unfairly attacked.

She didn't hesitate to point fingers at renowned columnists and reporters when questions arose about outside speaking fees, and her criticisms prodded the paper to make key internal changes, such as having a greater emphasis on prompt corrections and accountability to the public.

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