McGuire on Media

My tortured journey to becoming Deborah Howell’s friend

At 9:09 p.m. (MST) Friday night Jim Romenesko tweeted this: MPR reports Ex-Newhouse News, Pioneer Press editor Deborah Howell was killed in a road accident in NZ.

I stared at my phone for at least 30 seconds before I moved. All relationships are complicated. Mine with Deborah Howell set indoor records for topsy-turvy emotions of respect, dislike, awe, jealousy and gratitude. After several minutes of dithering I tweeted this at 9:32 p.m. “Romenesko just tweeted that Deborah Howell was killed in accident in NZ. Stunning. She was competitor, character and friend.”  That was the best I could do so shortly after the news, but the truth is far more complex.

Since last night I have wrestled with whether I should write these words.  I have been away from the office for two weeks and away from this blog for more than four weeks. The twitterscape and the blogosphere are full of more eloquent voices than mine and full of the heartfelt words of better friends than I was. My hats off to the tweeter, whose name I can’t find now, who wrote about the “force of nature” that was Deborah. And this tweet said it all wonderfully, ” kathlanpher: @bcollinsmn Deborah Howell swore like a Marine, edited like a dream, drove you crazy & u loved her. Broken hearts around world today.”

The obituary in the Star Tribune was excellent, and Jeff Jarvis wrote a marvelous blog on Deborah and learning. it was Jarvis’ blog  that convinced me I should make the trip downtown to write this entry. This Jarvis quote did it: “I learned that Deborah had little fear of learning. I argue that we must all learn in public now — which means making mistakes and finding lessons and moving on. We online need to be more generous with others as they learn our ways.”

My relationship with Deborah has taught me much about opening my mind and heart, and Jarvis prompts me to share that “in public.”

The name Deborah Howell first became significant to me when a few months before I was to join the Minneapolis Star, Deborah left the Star for the Pioneer Press after a very public and ugly spat with the man who was hiring me, Steve Isaacs. I liked Isaacs, and I still do, making my relationship with Deborah dicey from the very beginning.

The tweets and the blogs make it clear Deborah was a tough competitor. They are mincing words. I have competed in the newspaper world, in  high school and college debate and I have been very close to sports and athletes throughout my life.  Deborah Howell was as ferocious a competitor as you’d ever want to meet, not a lovable charming competitor, but a no-holds-barred, must-win kind of competitor. Far more times than I’d like to admit Deborah beat our ass when I was in Minneapolis.  And, I wrote that the way I wanted to write it.  In other eras the St Paul Pioneer Press beat us, but when she was was there, Deborah beat us. I always looked at it that way.

The classic story that defines Deborah’s competitiveness and her stevedore’s approach to the language is one Bob Duffy of Universal Press Syndicate has dined out on for years. “Duff” doesn’t have to be very far into his cups before he recounts the Christmas card Deborah returned to Universal one year. Universal’s card featured the  great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip that ran exclusively in the Star Tribune thanks to territorial agreements.  Deborah returned the  card with something akin to this written on it: I don’t bleeping appreciate getting a bleeping Christmas card for a bleeping comic strip that I can’t bleeping get because of your bleeping territory rules.” Deborah did not use the word bleeping.

Obviously, that sort of competitiveness did nothing to make Deborah and me close friends. But, I will never forget the day I was on the road and called in to make my daily check with Deputy Managing Editor Steve Ronald. Steve tried to brace me, but then told me that the Pioneer Press had won a Pulitzer for a marvelous piece written by John Camp. You know Camp as John Sandford, the incredibly successful novelist. A couple of years later another Pulitzer followed for Deborah, her staff and her newspaper. She was just that damn good, and it pissed me off no end.

When Deborah announced she was leaving the Pioneer Press in 1990 I was one happy guy. I considered her nothing less than a nemesis. Timbuktu would have been a preferable location for Deborah from my perspective, but Washington was close to the right distance for me.

Then things got weird. I was elected to a one-year term on the American Society of Newspaper Editors board by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.  The next year Rich Oppel, Deborah and I were on the same ballot.  My heart quivered. Surely my arch-nemesis would destroy me again.  Miraculously Oppel, Howell and McGuire were the top three vote-getters. That meant several years of board membership with Deborah.

The first few years were prickly and uncomfortable for me. Working side-by-side with Deborah made me realize, and I think she did too, that harboring old wounds bears no positive fruit.  With each passing year we got friendlier and friendlier. It was never “share our deepest, darkest secrets” friendly, but it was comfortable friendly. We got friendly enough that over the last couple of years, as an emissary for Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan, I have tried to sweet-talk her into coming to Arizona State to become our Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Journalism Ethics. She thought about it seriously this past spring, but a couple of Newhouse consulting jobs and this fateful trip to New Zealand got in the way.

We were really determined to get her here, partly because I thought it would effectively bring our quirky relationship journey full circle. I wanted to be able to say I had worked with Deborah Howell after being one of her fiercest competitors. And most importantly, she would have made one helluva ethics professor!

I have omitted  the really strange element of my story with Deborah. I have never talked openly about this to anyone except my wife.

Most friends know that being President of ASNE was a tremendously important element of my career. I wanted that presidency as much as I’d ever wanted anything. I had two very close calls in which I had lost board elections by one vote. I had one last year of eligibility. Fascinatingly, so did Deborah.  In my heart of hearts, I knew that if Deborah so much as expressed a breath of interest in the presidency, she would once again beat my ass.

Then miraculously, the word started to spread that Deborah was not interested. To this moment I do not know why. I don’t know if it was an act of generosity to a former enemy or a practical lifestyle decision.  I do know that her choice had a profound impact on my life.

The other thing I know is that Deborah Howell affected my life in scores of amazing ways for 30 years. Her death leaves me with an unmistakable hole in my heart.


  1. Randall Mikkelsen
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Tim. This was quite an honest and compelling remembrance.

  2. John B. Matthews
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I would turn to YOU for some comforting words. There are icons (you) and then there are icons (Deborah). This is a very sad day.

  3. Posted January 2, 2010 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tim, for the truth telling. I had no idea. I’m sure Deborah is editing the dispatch in heaven.

  4. Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done, Tim. Honest describes both you and Howell. I’m thrilled I had the good fortune to work for you both.

    My little remembrance at:

  5. Posted January 3, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Yours was a moving tribute, Tim. I remember having you and Deborah as guests on NEWSDAY to discuss newspaper wars and debates over journalism. All the coverage of her death is evidence that her life mattered to many.

  6. Tom Callinan
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Tim. Only you could put these memories and words together to help her friends and colleagues cope. I recall fondly the time I spent with you and Deborah in Rome. She and I talked for a long time about our beloved Minnesota connections. Mostly about St. Paul, sorry. She got a kick out of hearing that I was named after my father’s Midway paper route, hence Thomas Edmund. All the best, TC

  7. Valerie Carroll
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    It took an awful lot of cajones to write this candid, honest and clearly heartfelt piece. It is wonderful that you felt you were able to finally find an equitable and level field with Deborah so that in her death there was no “unfinished business” to further burden you. And funny how “enemies” or “frenemies” can become friends, and perhaps, it is a deeper bond than just a casual friendship. Oh, Deborah is my stepmother (Peter Magrath’s daughter) and while my father, and all of her family, are deeply feeling the pain and grief from her loss and tragic death, I am finding that all of the memories and reflections on her life are a comfort; to know that she had such a profound impact om so many personally and professionally provides a small measure of peace to know that she *mattered* in this life. Thank you for your insight and peace to you. Valerie Magrath Carroll

  8. David Eden
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Tim: Having worked with Debbie at The Star, and with you there, too, I understand what you are saying. I learned about it from Joe Logan, who you know well. We are all in shock. Thanks for your story.

  9. Len Downie
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tim, for bringing Deborah’s competitive side to life for those who knew her best in other ways — although I’d venture that having her as your ombudsman, as I did for four great years at The Washington Post, was at least as challenging. The worst and best of it, of course, was that, in addition to being as stubborn, wise-ass and dead-certain about her views as, say, Tim McGuire, Deborah also was just as smart. Therefore, while I seldom changed her mind about something she criticized me or the newspaper for, she often changed mine — and I, the newspaper and our readers were the better for it. In addition, being one of best gossips I ever met, even in a newsroom, Deborah kept me much better informed about the newspaper and the rest of the industry than I was before or since. But what I will miss most, of course, is Deborah herself — so full of life that it’s still impossible for me to realize she is gone.
    Len Downie

  10. Dianne Arnold
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Tim, I’ve read many columns in the last few days about Deb because I’m so stunned that she’s no longer around to provide a “true north” for the journalism biz. I spent many an hour with her in St. Paul in the 80s — there weren’t that many women in the ranks of management — and I was in a different industry. I loved her for “telling truth to power” attitude, for her toughness, for her compassion (yes!), and for her willingness to mentor and be mentored. What a great broad! My deep sympathy to her extended family. We all have lost someone special.

  11. Posted January 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tim — Deborah would love your honesty, and ask for more. I was fortunate enough to work with her as a cub reporter for The Minneapolis Star, where she encouraged truth-telling and reinforced the wall between the newsroom and advertisers. I share in all of our shock and grief, and recommit to storytelling that matters.

  12. Posted January 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Dead-on honesty and fierce ambition for your newsroom are just two of the traits you and Deborah share. Thanks for sharing another important piece of the wonderful package she was.