Saturday, January 2, 2010

Journalist, Editor, Ombudsman Deborah Howell Dies At 68

Deborah Howell, a pioneering journalist who served in the sadly shrinking ranks of newspaper ombuds during a three-year tenure at the Washington Post, died in a road accident while vacationing in New Zealand.

Howell, 68, worked for both Minneapolis newspapers, ran one of them as it won two Pulitzer Prizes, and then became the Washington bureau chief for the Newhouse Newspaper Group and editor of Newhouse News Service — where her staff also won a Pulitzer. (Newshouse News is owned by Advance Publications, which is also the parent company of Condé Nast Digital, my employer).

"I don't think I've ever met anyone with as much passion for news and as much creativity and as much of a feeling for what it takes to be a great editor," Steve Newhouse said in an interview with Minneapolis Public Radio.

We never met, but I knew of Deborah Howell professionally; when she wrote an amusingly scathing piece about a WaPo opinion column which argued that women may actually be weaker and stupider than men because some of them had fainted at Obama campaign rallies, I wrote about it in a column for the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Howell made it look easy:

Of course, it's important for provocative opinion to be in the paper, especially in Outlook, which is all commentary. And this should have nothing to do with politics. (Writer Charlotte) Allen is a conservative, and Outlook should pay attention to conservative opinion.

But my umpteen years of experience have taught me to be wary of using humor, satire or irony about gender, race or religion. Humor can easily go awry or be misunderstood; it deserves extra care in editing and labeling. The Allen piece was offensive because it was a broadside against all women, despite her weasel words here and there. And the piece had the fatal flaw of not being funny. At all.

Howell had the rare talent to be engaging and "readable" in what is often a clinical or adversarial position. I've always thought of a newspaper ombud as a Internal Affairs police officer: Nobody on the inside ever wants to hear from you, and nobody on the outside really appreciates what you do.

Ombuds are a dying breed at newspapers, which have very little ballast left to toss overboard anyway. But as the readers' advocate in what could otherwise be an echo chamber of self-adulation the position would seem to be an important differentiating factor as traditional media tries meets greater competition from upstart media which may or may not respect the same journalistic traditions.

Howell left WaPo in 2008. She will be missed.

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