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:

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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:

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Good-bye, Deb.

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