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Deborah Howell, 68

Matt Schudel

It's never easy to write about the death of someone you know, but unfortunately it's something we occasionally have to do in the Obits department. I came to work Saturday and learned that Deborah Howell, who was The Post's ombudsman from October 2005 to December 2008, had been killed in a traffic accident in New Zealand. She was walking across a road to take a photograph when she was struck by a car.

I didn't know Deborah all that well, but I had met her long before she came to The Post. She was the innovative editor and bureau chief of the Newhouse News Service in Washington, and for years I had tried to get a job in the bureau. It never quite worked out, but whenever I would come to Washington, I'd stop by her office, to chat and to meet the Newhouse staff -- one of the finest and most overlooked groups of Washington journalists in recent years.

Alas, the recent collapse of the newspaper industry has claimed the Newhouse News Service in its entirety, and the ensemble that Deborah led has sadly been dispersed.

I talked to many people I didn't have space to quote in the story, and each person recommended three or four other people I should talk to. Deborah's husband, C. Peter Magrath (pronounced McGraw), a three-time university president, courageously took my call because, as he said, Deborah told him he should never duck a reporter's questions.

Deborah was not famous in any conventional sense, but she was exceptionally well known in her field. She loved to talk and had to have the biggest Rolodex in journalism.

"She would spend a couple of hours a day, just calling people up and schmoozing," Robert Hodierne, who came to the Newhouse Washington bureau after sailing around the world for two years, told me. "Deborah was Romenesko before there was Romenesko. She tended her netowrk the way farmers tended their fields."

She had a temper and could swear like a sailor whose shore leave was coming to end, but she had a good heart and a great nose for journalism. She made the St. Paul Pioneer Press into one of the best regional papers in the country in the 1980s, editing Pultizer Prize-winning feature stories by John Camp (better known today as the crime novelist John Sanford) and Jacqui Banaszynski, who is now one of the country's best-known writing coaches.

Deborah knew everyone, had the metabolism of a hummingbird and loved the give-and-take of journalism -- of finding stuff out and getting it out before the public. She believed that good reporting and editing were something like a sacred duty, a compact with the body politic.

Here's what The Post's Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Dana Priest told me in an e-mail:

"Deb Howell was a role model for me in so many ways. When she first came to the paper I remember thinking, 'Oh boy, I hope she's tougher than she looks and acts because we sure need someone with thick skin to do this job right.'

"She was, I would learn, a junkyard dog--my highest compliment for a journalist. I once saw mild-mannered Len Downie turn red and yell at her for questions she was asking about our political coverage. She persisted in her polite, almost dainty way, and when he walked off, she simply threw that eyebrows raised, 'well, that's done' look. She was unruffled. She knew what she had to do, and she did it. When the Department of Homeland Security threw a fit over a series of articles I had co-authored on immigration prisons, she made me and my co-author respond in writing and with documents to every single allegation, each one of which she scrutinized as if it were the only one. It probably took us 40 hours of work, and I know she put in much more than that on her own to do her own assessment -- and then to publish it in a shortened version for readers to see.

"To say Deb was a breed of journalists now threatened with extinction sounds like a cliche. But it's true and worth thinking about. She cared deeply about facts large and small. She had a scent for the jugular and her personality was, to its core, all about fairness. She looked out for the voiceless and was deeply frustrated that the great Washington Post would not assign more reporters to continue to investigate the problems of soldier and veteran care after our series on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center ran. She harangued management about this often and sought to put pressure on them in print too. She was only partly successful.

"Beyond her love for journalism, Deb was a woman who so clearly embraced life outside the workplace; adventuresome, salty-mouthed, sexy, fit and deeply proud of her family. We have lost a wonderful woman."

By Matt Schudel  |  January 2, 2010; 9:10 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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