Remembering Deborah Howell

HowellThe news of Deborah Howell's death hit the journalism community hard this weekend. Howell was loved by many in the business -- known for being ruthless in pursuit of breaking and accurate news, but also for being a pioneer of female leadership and colorful cussing. She was a top editor in the Twin Cities -- one of the first female editors of a major newspaper -- before coming to Washington to head Newhouse Newspapers Washington Bureau. It's crucial to note that she oversaw the creation of a religion beat there and was instrumental in having Newhouse purchase Religion News Service. When she became the Washington Post's ombudsman in 2005, many of her columns focused on religion coverage.

There are many pieces floating around, both obituaries and personal remembrances, and I rather enjoyed Carl Cannon's over at Politics Daily (and not just because he quotes one of my favorite editors, Robert Hodierne). Here's one tidbit that might be of interest to GetReligion readers:

Along the way, her bureau earned critical acclaim, along with occasional head-scratching from some of the Newhouse chain's more traditional editors. But Howell's instincts often proved to be ahead of the curve, particularly with regard to providing in-depth coverage of religion; Howell also was instrumental in persuading the Newhouses to buy Religion News Service, and attaching it to her bureau. The irony is that Deborah Howell's vision proved stronger than the newspaper business itself: The Washington bureau she led did not survive the current crisis afflicting American newspapers -- it shuttered its doors in 2008 -- but Religion News Service lives on.

I did not know Howell but I certainly appreciated her work at the Post. When I first read of her death (on Twitter, of course) I went through some of the many old posts we'd written about her columns. I thought it might be a nice remembrance to post some of her words now.

One of the things I loved about Howell's ombudsman work was how she simultaneously defended and criticized the work of Post journalists. It's one of the things we care about here -- defending the American model of journalism even in trying times. She was really the ideal ombudsman. Unlike some of the institutional apologists who are currently working as readers' representatives, Howell cared about readers and reporters. She was a tough critic but she understood how difficult it is to report a story and balance competing priorities. Here is a discussion on religion coverage from one of her earlier columns at The Post:

Religion is a subject that many Post readers care deeply about, and they often don't think journalists care as deeply about it as they do. Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not. I don't think that matters as long as religion and spiritual issues are reported thoroughly and sensitively.

While religion reporting has had a renaissance at The Post and in American journalism in the past few years, it doesn't get anything like the resources devoted to coverage of entertainment, sports, and politics and government. I think that readers would not be so offended by an occasional story or reference they see as insensitive if they believed that The Post made religion coverage a priority. . . .

I see nothing wrong with The Post's religion coverage; I would just like to see more of it -- particularly in the A section, even if it is brief stories from RNS, the Associated Press and Reuters. I don't think that incremental stories about denominations are all that important, but I don't want The Post to ignore interesting stories, especially as the diversity of religions explodes in our area.

Three years ago, Howell had a column with New Year's resolutions for the paper:

Resolution for The Post: Think twice about publishing something distasteful or overreaching on religion, race and gender -- especially in a supposedly humorous way.

From a column on remedying media bias:

Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo.

Journalists bristle at the thought of their coverage being viewed as unfair or unbalanced; they believe that their decisions are journalistically reasonable and that their politics do not affect how they cover and display stories.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, "The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It's not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It's inconceivable that that is irrelevant."

She ended her tenure as ombudsman almost exactly a year ago. Her last column was devoted to pointing out ways The Post could enhance its credibility and appeal:

Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers' hearts. This region has a wealth of religions with interesting stories. Recent Page 1 stories on the antiabortion movement by Jacqueline Salmon and new Catholic rules on fertility by Michelle Boorstein and science reporter Rob Stein were good to see, but two religion reporters aren't enough.

Make a serious effort to cover political and social conservatives and their issues; the paper tends to shy away from those stories, leaving conservatives feeling excluded and alienated from the paper. I'd like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed.

Excellent words of wisdom from a woman who had a tremendous impact on journalism and journalists. Let us know if you see particularly good remembrances of this remarkable woman.

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