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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  • dalea

    From the article:

    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.

    As someone on the religious left, I too feel excluded and alienated from the coverage of the paper. Curious how there is so much sentiment for the religioud right and nonr for the religious left.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Journalists are just like readers.

    No, they’re not. There’s no way that a handful of journalists at a publication can be representative of all readers.

    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.

    Well, of course they do. Unfortunately, in many cases, they are wrong. What publications need are executives who truly understand readers (a.k.a. customers) and who have the authority to ensure that articles (a.k.a. products, or components of products) satisfy the requirements and expectations of those readers. The lack of such executives is the primary reason why many publications are failing.

    Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed.

    You can’t pin this on staff members. It’s management’s fault. Period.

  • Carl Vehse

    In the above discussion of Deborah Howell, and in some other biographical articles about her, there wasn’t any mention of Deborah Howell’s religion, or whether she was a (current, former, or lapsed) member of any religious organization. Does anyone know?

    Also, was Howell a member of the Democratic Party or an independent who, as a self-identified liberal, voted for 0bama?

  • Ira Rifkin

    Carl:
    I cannot remember one time in the four-plus years I worked with Deborah Howell at Religion News Service that her religious leanings were ever apparent to me. Perhaps I just missed it or was not close enough to her to be aware of her leanings.
    However, I believe it was because she was just very good at keeping her own sense of what is or is not religious truth from interfering in the work of reporters and editors she trusted.
    She was demanding to work for, as any good editor should be, but also a pleasure because, journalistically, she really did get religion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Carl:

    What’s your point?

  • Carl Vehse

    “What’s your point?”

    For a person such as Deborah Howell, who was so involved for many years in the area of religious news (as Mollie indicates and substantiates with several quotes and links) and who certainly did not hid her personal political leaning (as Mollie also noted), it is odd there is nothing about Howell’s personal religious views, even in recent columns filled with remembrances from people who have worked with her. Ira Rifkin, in his post, also admits not knowing her religious leanings even after four years of working with Howell.

    That’s my point, Terry; in this case, the information gap is odd.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Carl:

    Where in Mollie’s piece did she discuss Howell’s personal political views?

  • Carl Vehse

    Terry, what is the point of your question? My earlier comment had stated “Mollie also noted” Howell’s political leaning, which she did in a quote from Howell herself.

    However the issue I had raised was the oddity of Howell being so involved in the management and reporting of religious news for so many years, yet there is an information gap about Howell’s personal religious views, which even one of her work associates did not know.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Yes, she does say that she voted for Obama. So did a lot of people, including some nationally known evangelicals.

    You seem to be saying that, in major newsrooms that deal with religion, everyone automatically knows each other’s religious affiliations? While that may be true, I am not sure that it is automatically part of the story. I have known an atheist or two who were excellent journalists on this beat.

    Anyway, I will address your point later today or tomorrow in another post.

  • Carl Vehse

    “You seem to be saying that, in major newsrooms that deal with religion, everyone automatically knows each other’s religious affiliations?”

    That is not what I said nor implied.

  • Derek N.

    According to the RNS website, she was an Episcopalian.

  • An Anonymous Episcopalian

    Deborah attended the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, Maryland. She was committed in their Columbarium on Sunday, January 17th.

    http://www.redeemerbethesda.org/


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