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Deborah Howell and her brilliant ability to squeeze the most out of her journalists

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.

Pulitzer-quality work
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.

Deborah Howell
Deborah Howell

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.

Still friends
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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by susie hopper on 01/02/2010 - 11:13 pm.

    John = I will never forget the day Deborah pulled you, me and Rossi into her office and announced the Pulitzer. She let me redesign the paper without any KRN interference when that was unheard of in that time. I loved her deeply. She once said, right when she was named editor, that there would never be another Friday manager’s meeting on a golf course, that the playing field had to be leveled because the two of us did not play golf. She was a magnificent manager of people! I loved her and learned so much from her. She will be missed. I loved that she opened the news meeting with ‘How will we kick their asses today?’ And she meant it. What a marvelous woman!

  2. Submitted by Hannah on 01/03/2010 - 01:41 pm.

    The tragic death of Deb Howell is eerily reminiscent of the untimely death of Bev Kees, another woman journalism pioneer who worked for the Minneapolis Star and then the Minneapolis Tribune before moving on to higher acclaim. In December 2003 Bev was killed when a truck hit her as she was walking a friend’s dog in San Francisco.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/04/2010 - 07:50 am.

    I feel like the cleaning lady/reader coming in through the transom…but what happened to Tim McQuire’s compelling tribute read in the early wee hours last night?

    I know little of Deb Howell other than she had a long track record and if I were she (or is it ‘her’) so tragically gone now, I would still be hanging around within listening distance…and find T.M.’s remembrance honest, and most grand indeed.

    However, “ability to squeeze the most out of journalists” leaves me with Howell manually strangling the attacked reporter. Would she like that….maybe.

    Either way, she leaves a large footprint for one described as a small woman…

  4. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 01/04/2010 - 09:29 am.

    There have been the most eloquent and heart-felt remembrances of Deborah Howell flooding the internet and printed pages. All well-deserved. But, you get the feeling that even those writers know their words don’t capture her completely. Hard to fully catch a Force of Nature.

    I met her at parties later, but she had left the Star the year before I arrived as a cub reporter. But I sure felt the wake she left in the Minneapolis newsrooms when she went across the river to St. Paul.

    The last Star editor, Steve Issacs, may end up being best known as the fool who convinced her to leave the 425 Portland Av. newsroom. There’s a legacy.

    Yet, she left behind a cadre of Debbie Friends in the Star newsroom who tried to keep the flame alive. In particular, the Kansas Jayhawks who shared her Texas-like sensibilities.

    One of them, Blaine King, hired me and then treated me to what I imagine was Howell-like tough love.

    One day, he pulled up a chair next to me and went over a story lede of mine he found to be – well, crappy. Another Kansan, Zeke Wigglesworth, saw this scene and had to put in his two-cents.

    “Blaine, what’s wrong?” Wigglesworth asked.

    “I’m going to give Gustafson a lobotomy and see if he can write a lede then,” my boss said.

    Translation: You think too much. Just tell the story!

    A few years later, I was on the staff that went to open the first big Strib news bureau in St. Paul. On the home turf of the Howell-led Pioneer Press beast. My, wasn’t that fun!

    One dark day, a bunch of PP staffers led by Nick Coleman burst into our humble St. Paul offices with champagne bottles and glasses and entreated us to join them in celebrating one of the Pulitzer Prizes they won under Howell. How kind of them. I bet she bought the bottles!

    The Strib returned the favor a couple of years later when Chris Ison and Lou Kilzer won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for a story out of St. Paul. Take that, Debbie!

    Truth is, the PP under Howell did more with less than the bigger and better-financed Strib. But I think she pushed not just her staff, but the Strib to do better through very aggressive competition. And everybody won – not least the readers and the general public.

  5. Submitted by Richard Greene on 01/04/2010 - 12:42 pm.

    What a beautiful article. I was a school teacher for 42 years and had a boss like that once. She did everything in the manner that Deborah did including helping me switch the job I had been doing for about 35 years into one that I really loved. Her name is Joanne Knuth and she stands stories higher than any other principal I ever had in St Paul Schools.

    Richard C Greene, ret.

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