Tribute to Deborah Howell - ASNE convention

By Jacqueline Banaszynski on April 12, 2010 0 Comments Ideas

Deborah Howell was a native of San Antonio, Tex., and became a reporter and editor, first at her high school newspaper and then at the Daily Texan at the University of Texas (BJ ‘62).

Deborah Howell
Deborah Howell

She was a reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the Minneapolis Star. She became the city editor at the Star and then the managing editor and editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She was the Washington Bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News from 1990 until 2005. Howell joined The Washington Post in October 2005 as an ombudsman. In that capacity, she promoted public understanding of the newspaper and journalism. She also wrote a weekly column.

Howell, 68, died Jan. 2, 2010. Howell's family said she suffered fatal injuries when she was struck by a car while vacationing in New Zealand with her husband, C. Peter Magrath, former president of the University of Minnesota.


"The news business is not for wimps and I am not one. I was suited by temperament and breeding for what I was to become."

That's what Deborah Howell told students at the Missouri School of Journalism last October, when she was awarded an Honor Medal for lifetime achievement. She told them how her father, a Texas radioman, sent her on a ride-along with a cop reporter to dissuade her from a career in news.  His plan backfired.  Deborah devoted the next 50 years to journalism – journalism that kicked ass in tiny, spiked-heeled shoes and had a heart far bigger than her native Texas.

Ten weeks after that speech, the unabashed joy and pride Deborah found in journalism became her epitaph.  She had finished her stint as ombudsman at the Washington Post – the capstone to a career of newspaper leadership that included three Pulitzer Prizes.  She wrote in her Christmas note that she was failing at retirement and excited about working with Newhouse again on digital news sites.  Then, as the new year dawned, she was dead, killed in a road accident in New Zealand.

She was on vacation at the time, with her husband Peter Mcgrath, a former university president who now advises higher education around the world.  Their mid-life romance was a gift not just to them, but to us.  Peter's unconditional acceptance of Deborah – his deep like of her – softened her and gave her calm that added to her strength.  Her unconditional devotion to journalism inspired Peter to become one of its best advocates. When Deborah was killed, Peter graciously fielded every reporter's call.  He continues to support her, and us, with his presence here today.

Those who knew Deborah know the immeasurable despair that came with her death.  How does such a life force come to an end?  How does such a bright light suddenly go dark?

The answer is, it doesn't.  Maybe the day-to-dayness we came to lean on is gone.  But not the incomparable spirit.

Deborah Howell exasperated and vexed and cussed like a dockworker.  She pushed harder and made people madder than most anyone I know.  But she also made us better.  So today I speak on her behalf, and on behalf of the special work of journalism she cherished.

Deborah called that work “Journalism of the Spirit.”

I had not heard that term before.  I had watched it in action, been inspired by it, been given the privilege and responsibility of practicing it.  But I never knew what to call it in ways that spoke to why it matters so very, very much.

At Missouri last fall, Deborah named it:

"Journalism of the Spirit exposes human and social problems, illustrates issues that confront us in human terms," she said.  "It shows the good in the world and the bad, and understands complexity."

Journalism of the Spirit, as I saw Deborah practice it, cares fiercely about the people it serves.  It is of and with community, not simply in it.

At the height of the newspaper wars between her raggedy little St. Paul Pioneer Press and the gargantuan StarTribune, she gave a TV interview about the Strib's move east into her territory.  Deborah's comeback:  "They call it East Metro. We call it home."

We talk about hyper-local journalism.  But do we treat our communities as home, and our readers as neighbors?

Deborah was a Texan who embraced Minnesota with a fervor that had nothing to do with her paycheck.  She learned to fish in icy northern lakes and skied to work in snowstorms. She found a second home in the D.C. area, and a church that became a bedrock in her life, and a spiritual balance to her spirited brand of journalism.

At the same time, Journalism of the Spirit knows local transcends geography.  On a bare-bones budget, Deborah sent reporters around the world – to Africa to cover famine, to Rome to cover a changing church.  She didn't champion those stories for circulation gains or bragging rights – although she was not immune to either.  She championed them because they spoke to readers in their hearts as well as their minds and wallets.

Journalism of the Spirit is tireless in the moment.  Deborah hated getting beat.  But she also knew that the past shapes the present, and that news without context can be thin and dangerous gruel.  She dared Minnesotans to confront their dark racial history with a project recounting the largest Indian uprising in the U.S. – and correcting racist news reports of the past. She knew metro readers were not far from their rural roots when she sent a reporter and photographer to live with a farm family facing bankruptcy.

Journalism of the Spirit does not stand on the sidelines and collect quotes.  It goes to the center of the story and bears witness.  Before we presumed to write about someone's reality, Deborah insisted we "walk a mile in their moccasins."

Along the way, she dared us to shed light on humanity's deepest hopes and fears, and to explore emotion as well as action.

In 1985, Deborah felt the battle over gay rights and AIDS was going to be a force that changed and defined America.  Her vision led to an intimate portrait of two men dying together of AIDS – a story that few thought could be told anywhere at the time, much less from the reserved heartland.

At Newhouse, she sent journalists along the MLK Boulevards of our cities to explore urban black America – another reality dividing and defining us.

She championed rigorous and respectful coverage of religion, elevating it beyond the weekly clergy column.

She was as interested in the losers at the Olympics as the winners, and in children who found ways to play in the midst of war.

This from Deborah: "Don't forget we are human beings reporting for other human beings."

Deborah was no Luddite.  She loved speed and scoops and exposing the bad guy.  But she felt that is where our service to society starts – not where it ends.  She embraced digital media for its reach and depth of information.  But she feared it could be a hollow shell if the information on it is not accurate and fair, and if it does not make room for depth of spirit.

We are at a crucible moment in journalism.  The decisions we make and actions we take now will determine how, and whether, we walk into the future.  We are understandably scrambling to meet the demands, threats and possibilities of technology and business.  We are rightly circling the wagons around the core of public service and watchdog journalism.

But in the midst of that, Deborah called for more.  Journalism of the Spirit demands intelligence, yes, and courage, certainly.  But then it demands the most difficult commitment of all – the commitment of heart.

"Watchdog and investigative journalism couldn't be more important," she said.  "But in our zeal to preserve them, we must not lose sight of telling the stories of the human spirit, the suffering and mystery, the transcendent … things you don't hear much about in newsrooms. … (Yet) the most important stories that I've supervised over the years were the ones that brought readers to their knees or touched their hearts."

Deborah left students last October with a challenge, one I will leave you with now.  Consider it a plea.  Consider it a call to arms.  Consider it Deborah's prayer:

"Journalism will be saved by the people who love and cherish it" she said. "I hope you are those people."

Jacqui Banaszynski worked for Deborah Howell at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the 1980s.  Under Howell's leadership, she won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting.  She went on to become an editor at the Pioneer Press, the Oregonian and The Seattle Times.  She now is a Knight Chair professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, teaches at the Poynter Institute and coaches journalists around the world.

No votes yet


Add Your Comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Filtered words will be replaced with the filtered version of the word.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

You don't have to log in to leave a comment, but please leave your name.
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.