The death of a curious mind

Deborah Howell was unafraid to learn in public. That, I think, is her best lesson for us all.

Deborah died today in a roadside accident while vacationing in New Zealand. She had been ombudsman of the Washington Post, chief of the Advance Publications’ Newhouse News Service in Washington, and editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She was 68.

She and I worked together in various stages of our careers, most recently consulting for our former employer, Advance, in a daring project to fold the company’s 174-year-old newspaper in Ann Arbor and replace it with a an online service based on blogs and in the community. Our former boss, Steve Newhouse, paired us because I was to be the hot-air balloon — this project was, after all, a chance to practice what I’ve been preaching — and Deborah was to be the ballast, the traditionalist with experience in the eternal verities of journalism and respect from journalists.

But our roles often reversed. I was the one holding Deborah down as she grabbed new ideas with the fervor of a convert and fretted that we weren’t being radical enough; I was cast by contrast as the conservative. She was quicker than I was to criticize and reject the work of traditionalists simply because it wasn’t good enough. She was open, eager, and fearless learning new technologies and their implications and opportunities. We brainstormed via wiki.

That was a lesson for me. My prior interaction with Deborah had been as a blogger when she was the Post’s ombudsman. In that role, she found herself more than once in a hornets’ nest. She made a mistake and didn’t correct herself quickly or abjectly enough for bloggers’ taste. The paper killed comments about a controversy involving her, violating the bloggers’ sense of the propriety of a historical record. She found herself in the middle of the print-v-online war in the Post newsroom (which simmers still). I was among the critical. She never called me on it at a personal level. She stuck to the substance.

Here’s Deborah rethinking the notion of blogging at a meeting of ombudsmen:

Jarvis thinks all ombudsmen ought to blog. His blog is at He said bloggers “distrust the institutional voice and trust more the human voice. The more we represent that personal voice, the better.”

That caught me up short. I got a laugh at the meeting when I said, “I hardly have time to go to the bathroom. Start a blog?” Instead of responding to 600 letters, he said “a blog post is more efficient and adds to the conversation.” I’ll think about it.

I learned that Deborah had little fear of learning. I argue that we must all learn in public now — which means making mistakes and finding lessons and moving on. We online need to be more generous with others as they learn our ways. There’s no sense in replacing one orthodoxy with another. What we need instead is curiosity. That is what Deborah had.

Before the Post, Deborah was in charge of the Newhouse Washington bureau when I was the online editorial guy in New York and what I remember most about that time was her tireless, quixotic efforts to find a business model for the Religion News Service, which the company owned. Deborah fought for and protected this poor child the way she did all her journalists. That’s why they were loyal to her.

I’ve long said that the only real fringe benefit to being a journalist is that you get an obit in the paper when you die. Lately, I’ve said I fear I’ll outlive the papers I worked on. But maybe there’s a new mark of a legacy. When I searched Google today for news on Deborah’s death, I found this:

Picture 15

Deborah’s friends and colleagues gathered around her new home online. And they spread the tragic news of her death and paid tribute to her:

Picture 16

Good-bye, Deb.

: LATER: Here are David Carr’s and Ken Doctor’s remembrances.

  • Robert MacMillan

    Thanks, Jeff. You wrote a remarkable eulogy about a remarkable journalist.

  • Thanks Jeff, though i met Deborah only a few times, i quietly counted her as one of my mentors who i’d always wished to know better one day. I learned of her at advance in the old days, I admired her poise and work from afar, as someone who set a standard for my own career. Your tribute gives me more insight into why, my instinct was correct, and I am greatful for your special tribute.

  • The problem isn’t learning, it’s that there are some people who are very vocal about pointing out what you did wrong and bludgeon you with it forever. It makes it hard to take those risks, but you do it anyway.

  • Jacqui Banaszynski

    Jeff. Thanks. Deborah was all you said, and more. She was a star at the center of a constellation she had a large hand in creating … a constellation of dedicated reporters and authority-challengers and community lovers and storytellers and stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told women given a chance and men given lessons in how to dress and legions of people from all walks of life who she took on and then befriended, and writers — writers of all voices, as long as the voices were true. She always knew when they weren’t. The spike in Google hits to her name is no surprise. Too bad we can’t build a similar chart showing the people she influenced (helped) and the difference she made through every piece of journalism that somehow traces back to her central star.

  • Jeff: You’ve captured one of her greatest qualities. Thanks.

    You note her efforts for RNS. Yes, tireless, quixotic and, yet, so in line with her restless spirit. She knew good journalism about important matters should find a home, even if the ways of the world threw up all kinds of obstacles.

    My remembrance, most from the Saint Paul days:–atop-one-of-the-saint-paul-pioneer-press-metro-desks-yes.html


  • Bill Gannon

    Thanks for the great post Jeff.
    The loss of Deborah Howell comes at a time when we need her grit, humor, and experience more than ever. As Jacqui noted, I was one of the many fortunate reporters in her Newhouse News Service days that Deborah always made time for. Her support, confidence, and her remarkable passion for a great story continue to inspire me today. Thank you Deborah.

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  • Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your memories and feelings about Deborah. I may be wrong about this, but I think she was the first professional woman I ever heard use the F-word in public — and mean it. I say that with the greatest affection. I must have gasped a little when I heard it, but then she repeated it. And repeated it again — in each case directed at what she thought were the futile efforts of a competitor. I wish I had the moment on video. I’d be inclined to play it just to fire me, the way that John Belushi rallied the troops at the end of Animal House. May she rest in peace, and, if there is a heaven, St. Peter’s ears must be ringing.

  • Hi Jarvis,

    I bougth your book, he´s execellent.

    I too liked the article.


  • Thank you Jeff for this tribute to the wonderful Deborah Howell. It is hard to think that someone so alive is gone. Thanks for helping me remember her spirit, her keen mind and her warmth.

  • Jeff – your tribute is much appreciated by the members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen of which Deb was a valued and trusted member. Deb was a wonderful inspiration to all of us and she will be deeply missed. A few years ago, a group of ombuds would meet over lunch in Washington, DC to share our dilemmas about readers, listeners and viewers (we represented the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, PBS and NPR at those gatherings) but mostly to mull over how our respective newsrooms were adapting to a greater transparency and how we could better get our colleagues and bosses to understand the value of that. While Deb could be one of the toughest of our group, she also knew the psychology of news people better than anyone I ever met. I’ll miss her sharp wisdom and her love of the craft.

  • Deborah Howell, better known as “Howell,” was a force of nature. You always knew where you stood with her, and yet you always felt she was on your side. She was one of the first people i contacted when I became NPR’s ombudsman and all along this journey, she was someone I relied on to run things by. The word mentor comes to mind.

    Not only was she a great and true journalist, she was a champion of women and paved the way for many of us. My last conversation with her was about a month ago standing on the corner near NPR where I bemoaned how online commenting is more often than not, harsh and uncivil, and in my mind, unproductive. She regaled me with some of the names that readers of the Post –who disagreed — called her. None of which can I print. and a few of which I wouldn’t even use. But they spilled easily out of her mouth. It was one of her endearing qualities.

    I will always be grateful to her for all she did for me and my family.

    Alicia Shepard

  • Amy Nutt

    I met Deborah Howell only a couple of times, but felt that I knew her well enough to call her a friend. As the head of Newhouse News, she never failed to send a note my way when one of my stories at The Star-Ledger was picked up and sent out. And when she heard I had breast cancer, she didn’t hesitate to call me and commiserate, sharing her own experience with the disease and even offering tips on great places to get a good-looking wig! She was kind, thoughtful, full of stories and advice and yes, profane — the kind of newsman we all want to be, hope to be. I will miss her; more importantly, journalism will.

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  • One of the things we worry about is whether or not our passing will be noticed, recorded, cause a ripple. People showing they notice beyond just coming to a memorial.

    It’s so nice to see these ripples in action, isn’t it? Even if the event itself is not at all lessened in hurt.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Mark Bedford

    I heard from Deborah as she was getting ready to leave for NZ. I knew Deborah Howell (and Peter) through her brother, Ghent Howell – When he was dying of AIDS, Deborah had a theory that if she could just keep him traveling, he would last forever. It almost worked. She was a lioness in her love for him and I remember being astonished at this tiny woman, whose toughness and energy was surpassed only by her compassion and impeccable integrity. Being with Deborah was an adventure in living. My heart goes out to Peter.

  • Hi. Thanks for this post!. I also Love Deborah Howell. She’s a wonderful person.

  • Hi Jarvis,
    I bought your book, he’s excellent.

    Eu também adoro Deborah Howell. Ela é uma pessoa maravilhosa.