Deborah Howell, a pioneering newswoman who helped run both of Minnesota's major newspapers in the 1980s and went on to become ombudsman for the Washington Post, has died. She was struck and killed by a car while vacationing in New Zealand. She was 68.
Howell was one of the first women to head a large daily American paper when she took over the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the 1980s. She had previously been a reporter and editor at the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.
She was vacationing in New Zealand with her husband, former University of Minnesota president C. Peter Magrath, when she was killed on Friday. Magrath told friends they had stopped by a roadside to take a picture, and that Howell stepped onto the road into the path of an oncoming car, which struck and killed her.
Howell gained fame for helping steer the St. Paul paper to two Pulitzer Prizes during her tenure. She also helped launch the careers of writers like columnist James Lileks, "Friday Night Lights" author H.G. Bissinger, and best-selling novelist John Camp, a former Pioneer Press columnist who now writes under the name John Sanford.
"I can remember the first time she walked into the newsroom," Camp recalled. "Here's the skinny little woman who was going to be the assistant managing editor, and she kind of took the place over."
Camp said she was instrumental in developing his career as a fiction writer, and helped guide other well-known Minnesota writers like architecture expert Larry Millett. Writer Jacqui Banaszynski also won a Pulitzer during Howell's tenure.
Howell's influence stretched beyond the newsroom in other ways. She married one of the state's most powerful politicians, DFL Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman, while she was a working journalist in the Twin Cities. She remained close to his children, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, even after Nick Coleman's death in 1981.
“This skinny little woman ... kind of took the place over.”John Camp, former Pioneer Press columnist and novelist
Chris Coleman said she was a close advisor, and even helped shape his work as mayor.
"She would be the person who made sure I had the perfect tie for an inaugural event," said Coleman. "She would always be the final edit of all my speeches, the state of the city or an inaugural address, just to make sure all the words were spelled correctly, or we had the grammar correct."
Howell left Minnesota in 1990 to run the Washington bureau of the Newhouse News Service.
Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, worked closely with Howell during her tenure at Newhouse. He described her as a remarkably skilled editor.
"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," Newhouse said.
Howell's staff at Newhouse also won a Pulitzer while she was there. She also helped develop the Religion News Service and was a member of the board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
She joined the Washington Post as its ombudsman in 2005 and gained national notoriety for her controversial defense of the paper's coverage of the Jack Abramoff scandal, and for criticism of Watergate legend Bob Woodward.
In her first ombudsman column for the Post in October 2005, Howell described her philosophy of the job this way.
"My values simply are these: Journalism should be as accurate as human beings can make it and it should be enlightening, fair, honest and as transparent as possible. Mistakes should be acknowledged and quickly corrected. When you finish reading The Post, you should feel more informed than when you began."
Howell left the Post in 2008.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)