Former Post ombudsman helped break glass ceiling

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; C06

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.

"She really represented the readers well," said former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. "We did have some disagreements, but if we didn't, she wouldn't have been doing her job."

In January 2006, Ms. Howell wrote a column about convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in which she erroneously said he had given money to both political parties. In fact, he personally contributed only to Republicans, but money he directed to others was donated to both parties. Ms. Howell corrected the statement, but her original column led to deluge of outrage from readers, who accused Ms. Howell of being a tool of the Republican Party.

"Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down," she wrote.

She questioned whether the anonymity of the Internet had unleashed a new form of virulent sniping that found partisan motives lurking in simple mistakes.

"What I do know is that I have a tough hide, and a few curse words (which I use frequently) are not going to hurt my feelings," she wrote.

"But it is profoundly distressing if political discourse has sunk to a level where abusive name-calling and the crudest of sexual language are the norm, where facts have no place in an argument. This unbounded, unreasoning rage is not going to help this newspaper, this country or democracy."

Journalism in her blood

Deborah Carolyn Howell was born Jan. 15, 1941, in San Antonio. Her parents, both journalists, met in a Texas newsroom.

When Ms. Howell was a high school junior near San Antonio, her school was integrated, which she called "one of the greatest cultural experiences" of her life.

After a year at Texas Tech, she transferred to the University of Texas, graduating in 1962. She began her career at a Corpus Christi, Tex., television station, making $80 a week, before moving to the Minneapolis Star in 1965.

In 1975, she married Nicholas Coleman, the Minnesota state Senate majority leader, and was stepmother to his six children, one of whom, Christopher B. Coleman, is the mayor of St. Paul. Her husband died in 1981.

Ms. Howell joined the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1979 and reached the top editor's chair in 1987. She oversaw two Pulitzer-winning feature-writing projects, on the Midwestern farm crisis and AIDS in the heartland.

In 1988, Ms. Howell married C. Peter Magrath, a former president of the University of Minnesota and the University of Missouri system. He was president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges from 1992 to 2005 and was later interim president of West Virginia University. They lived in Glen Echo.

He survives, as do eight stepchildren, a sister, 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ms. Howell held leadership roles in the American Society of News Editors Foundation, International Women's Media Foundation, Washington Press Club Foundation and the Gridiron Club. In October, she was honored by the University of Missouri for her lifetime contributions to journalism.

In recent months, she was working on efforts to improve the quality journalism on the Internet and remained a vocal champion of the press.

In her first column for The Post in 2005, she wrote: "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. . . . I truly believe a democracy can't operate without a free press."

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