Former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell remembered for journalistic spirit, leadership

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Howell remembered as ‘force for good journalism’

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Former Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell is being remembered as “a powerful force for good journalism” who was a loyal friend and an inspiring mentor to others in the industry.

Howell, 68, died Friday when she was struck by a car in Blenheim, a town of 30,000 people on the northeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Detective Sgt. John Hamilton of the Blenheim police department said Monday that it appeared Howell was crossing a highway to take a picture when she stepped in front of a car in the far lane. Hamilton said it’s possible she was “completely unaware of the vehicle.”

Drivers in New Zealand travel on the left side of the road, not the right as in the United States, so pedestrians must look first in the direction opposite from their norm.

Hamilton said a full investigation was under way and would take some time. Police were looking at whether there was any basis for charging the driver. The most common charge in such circumstances is careless driving causing death.

Howell was in New Zealand on vacation with her husband, C. Peter Magrath, the former president of the four-campus University of Missouri system and the University of Minnesota.

Under Howell’s leadership, the St. Paul Pioneer Press won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1986 and 1988.

“She was the best newspaper editor I ever worked with,” said John Camp, whose winning series examined the life of an American farm family amid the agricultural crisis. “She didn’t do things by a managerial workbook; she was instinctual.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Howell’s stepson, said the family was devastated.

“Deborah was a pioneering journalist,” Coleman said in a statement. “She was fascinated by people and places the world over. She was a woman of ideas and an irreplaceable guiding force in my life and in the lives of everyone who knew her.” Howell previously was married to Coleman’s father, former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman, until his death in 1981.

“She played a very important role in my life after my dad died, right up to editing my speeches,” Chris Coleman said. “And she was a powerful force for good journalism.”

Coleman said he had been spending the day preparing for his Monday inauguration when he got the news about Howell’s death. “The last thing I had yet to do was to send her my remarks for her edits,” he said.

Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, another stepson, said Howell was a mentor and confidant to many in the newsroom and had a relationship with many outside the newsroom’s walls.

“She had personal loyalties and could count on people’s loyalties,” he said.

Howell, the daughter of two journalists, once said she was “a reporter in my bones.” Raised in Texas, Howell worked for newspapers there before moving to Minnesota in 1965.

She was city editor and an assistant managing editor of the Minneapolis Star before becoming managing editor and executive editor of the Pioneer Press. Howell later became the Washington bureau chief of the Newhouse newspaper chain, where her staff also won a Pulitzer. From 2005 to 2008, she was The Washington Post’s ombudsman.

When Howell joined Newhouse, she became one of the first women to lead a Washington bureau, said David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Shribman, who ran the Washington bureau for The Boston Globe in the 1990s, said he considered Howell a colleague, a mentor and an “amazingly loyal friend.”

“She took an underperforming bureau that did routine stories badly and made it a center of innovation and enterprise,” Shribman said.

Colleagues said she was a force to be reckoned with who never walked away from a fight.

“She could swear like a sailor. She taught me how to swear,” said former Pioneer Press reporter Theresa Persons, who wrote under the name Theresa Monsour. “She’s tiny. A delicate, tiny, well-dressed woman, and she would open her mouth and say stuff that I don’t think you can say in a newsroom now.”

In October, Howell was awarded the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Honor Medal “in recognition of a life’s career devoted to practicing and leading others to practice aggressive, fair and useful journalism,” according to the school’s Web site.

Chris Coleman said his own daughter was inspired by Howell, and will soon study journalism at the University of Missouri.

Star Tribune columnist James Lileks, hired at the Pioneer Press by Howell, followed her to Newhouse.

“She was the most fearless, fierce, fair and honest journalist I’ve ever met,” Lileks said. The only thing she loved more than her profession were the people with whom she worked. … At a time when newspapers had become quiet, comfy places, she brought the spark and crackle of ‘The Front Page’ to any room she walked through.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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