Deborah Howell’s death on Friday was a blow to her many friends. She was a good human being, intelligent, full of warmth, and hands-down the best newspaper executive I’ve ever worked with.
A couple of weeks ago, we were talking on the telephone about possible retirement lives, and she said that she’d located a drawing instructor and would begin drawing lessons as soon as she got back from New Zealand. And she’d purchased a camera, and thought of going to the Santa Fe Workshops for professional instruction in photography.
Retirement was to be a time when she could get serious about things she’d been attracted to, but had to let go, to keep functioning as a newswoman. She also would do a little consulting for Newhouse, she said, become a board member of MinnPost, and so on.
In other words, she wasn’t quitting anything – she was just moving along.
Deborah was the best news executive I’d ever met because she didn’t confuse running a newspaper with operating a pea-canning factory or an assembly plant for toasters. The curse of the news business has been the dim-witted, dimple-chinned MBA graduate who spent two weeks as a reporter, another week on the copy desk, and then began his/her ascent into the murk, where he/she was given a program to run, and then was flown into a town he/she had never been before, to run the program from behind a large desk.
Deborah didn’t run programs.
She started out in lowly newsroom jobs, eventually became an accomplished reporter, spent some time with the union, transitioned through a city editor’s job into management, and up from there. She knew both the business and the city she was working in, and the mentalities of the people she was working with.
She had a brilliant ability to squeeze the most out of her employees, and make them thank her for it. While she was at the Pioneer Press, her reporters won two Pulitzer Prizes, for a paper that had never previously even sniffed a Pulitzer.
As remarkable as it was to win two, over a couple of years, it’s even more remarkable that three additional stories were Pulitzer finalists. In a space of eleven years, more or less, starting with a modest Midwestern newspaper never known for winning prizes, she began producing Pulitzer-quality work on regular basis…every year, year in and year out, by a variety of people. She could do it because she thought in terms of personalities and talents and opportunities, rather than theories and programs.
She was very, very good at doing that.
I was a benefactor of her style: She pushed me into longer and longer-form feature stories, two of which became non-fiction books, and suggested (in a kindly way) that that might be the way I should go, rather than continuing as a Pioneer Press columnist. I agreed, and 15 seconds later, Joe Soucheray appeared with a grin on his face, recruited from the Star-Tribune, and he instantly became one of the dominant columnists in the Twin Cities.
Chuck Logan was an ink-stained wretch in the Pioneer Press’s art department, working as an artist, but with a hankering to write. Deborah volunteered to help, and every time he’d produce a batch of prose, she’d rip it up for him. He’s now published eight novels in a distinguished writing career, and is working on the ninth.
Jacqui Banasynski, who won one of the Pulitizers for her story “Aids in the Heartland,” went on to an influential career as a reporter, editor and academic; Buzz Bissinger, who was one of the Pulitzer finalists for Deborah, and who won a Pulitzer a couple of years after he left the Pioneer Press, wrote the book and movie “Friday Night Lights,” and is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair; Bruce Orwall left the Pioneer Press to eventually become the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Los Angeles, and now in London.
And it wasn’t only the writers: photographers like Jean Pieri and Joe Rossi did some of their best work under Deborah: she liked a great photo as much as a good story.
All those people, and many more, are still Friends of Deborah.
I don’t know the details of her career in Washington, but she pulled another Pulitzer out of the Newhouse Bureau, and then went on to be ombudswoman at the Washington Post.
Not an accident. You could sit Deborah Howell in the newsroom in East Jesus, Texas, and six months later people would be talking about what a great little paper they had in East Jesus.
None of this was headache-free – there were all the usual newsroom personnel problems, ranging from the tragic to the inane, a number of fairly intense personality clashes, along with the increasing budgetary problems, and rumored problems with the higher management, out of sight.
Whatever. The Friends of Deborah didn’t really care – we’d just do our work and let her take care of that stuff. Which she did.
It was a great privilege to work for her.
When all is said and done, there’s nothing I’d like better than to get a bunch of those personalities I’ve been writing about – all the people who went through the Pioneer Press newsroom in the ’80s – and sit in a motel room, someplace, after a tornado, maybe, even with a couple of guys from the Star-Tribune, and have Deborah come in with a sixpack or two, and we could all sit around and tell newspaper stories.
Can’t happen now. But it’d be like heaven.
John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist who writes under the pen name John Sandford. He won a Pulitzer in 1986 for a series of stories in the Pioneer Press — collectively titled “Life on the Land: An American Farm Family” — about a Minnesota farm family’s struggles during the Midwest farm crisis.