Washington Press Club Foundation
Deborah Howell:
Interview #4 (pp. 45-53)
August 10, 1993 in Washington, D.C.
Donita Moorhus, Interviewer

Go to Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Five | Session Six
Index | Cover | Home
Page 45

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Moorhus: We finished up last time with the death of your husband, Nick Coleman. That was a personal event, but what kind of an impact did it have on your professional life?

Howell: It had both a positive and a negative effect. The positive effect was that even though I had been married to him, with him dead, I didn't have a clear and present conflict of interest with the newspaper covering a man in politics who was a public figure. So that actually was a plus, because that problem had always been in the background of whatever I did. The minus of it was that personally it was just a blow to me, that was very hard to come back from. It took a long time to come back from it.

I threw myself into my work in my forties—I was forty when he died—and I worked for the next seven or eight years solidly, until I married Peter [Magrath]. So I threw myself into my work, and I really tried to do an A number one, terrific job, and I had the time to do it. I had friends, and I certainly had my stepchildren, but I would say that from the time I was forty until the time I married again when I was forty-seven, I spent at the office. I worked six or seven days a week. I remember one time being in the office at midnight on a Saturday night. I mean, I worked.

The energy I threw into the newspaper [St. Paul Pioneer Press] was good for the newspaper, I think, in the sense that I was able, because I was working so hard, to pull it up to a level where it hadn't been before, so that was a plus. On the other hand, I totally identified with the paper, and there's probably some bad to that, to being obsessed with your work.

I became then known on my own, and while I always had had a decent reputation as a journalist, I then could take a huge step into management and become a managing editor. I hadn't ever been known as just Nick Coleman's wife, but I then could really take a very clear direction on my own. Part of that was exhilarating. Part of it, I was just, why did I want to go home at night? There wasn't anything there.

Moorhus: Yet one of the things you said earlier in the interview was that your spiritual life really took hold in your forties.

Howell: Yes.

Moorhus: So that would have been this same period, is that right?

Howell: Yes, although I think my husband's death made me look inward more, but it had its main effect, I would say, in how I worked. I wasn't then, and am not now, particularly a church-goer, but I began to look at my work in a much more spiritual manner, much more compassion about the community and caring about the community, that kind of spirituality. "What can this newspaper do to make this community a better place to live in? Let's put this paper on the side of what's right." That kind of thing.

Page 45

Page 46

Moorhus: Did you get some direction, some help, in moving in that direction?

Howell: No, not a lot.

Moorhus: Was there anybody that was giving you what is called positive feedback on some of these things?

Howell: Some of the staff. I got it from some of the staff, and I got it from readers who could see that the newspaper was improving, who saw that we were putting out a more attractive, more substantial, more interesting newspaper. So I got a lot of positive feedback from readers and from the staff. I didn't get any to speak of from my publisher. I mean, he was glad when things went right. And I got some from my parent company, Knight-Ridder. I cared a lot about two men in Knight-Ridder—the guy who is now president, Jim Batten, and the man who was my boss for most of those years in corporate, Larry Jinks—and I felt very close to both of them, and they were both very helpful.

But the period of these years was also very difficult in St. Paul, in that the Minneapolis paper was trying to come after us in major ways, and I did not feel then, nor do I feel now, that they ever gave the corporate support that St. Paul needed. Constant budget-cutting and bottom-line attention was why I left. I had no reason ever to want to leave Knight-Ridder, or St. Paul, for that matter, but I got to the point that I wanted to leave, and I was ready to leave, because I saw a paper that I had built from an awful newspaper to something really good, and I knew I was going to have to make it smaller and tear down some of the things I had done. I could see it coming, and that was very painful to me.

Moorhus: I'm sure. What are some of the things that you did? You said readers were telling you that it was more substantive. Give me some examples.

Howell: Well, we won two Pulitzers. We had eight or nine Pulitzer finalists in those seven years. We did some very substantial work covering the Indian community. We did the Pulitzer Prize winning series, "AIDS in the Heartland." We did a Pulitzer Prize winning series, "Life on the Land," about a farm family in Southern Minnesota, and how the farm crisis hit them.

Moorhus: And that was Camp?

Howell: Yes, John Camp. I talked to him yesterday. And Jacqui Banaszynski did "AIDS in the Heartland." We sent Jacqui and a photographer [Jean Pieri] to Sudan with Minnesota relief workers, and she did a Pulitzer finalist on Sudan and what was happening there with the Minnesota relief workers.

We did a story called "The Plane that Fell from the Sky." It was a dramatic story about a plane that almost crashed, and how it changed the lives of the people on board. That was a Pulitzer finalist.

We did a story about the metaphysical distance between Indians and non-Indians. That was a Pulitzer finalist.

We did a series of stories on trying to save America's ducks, which were being slaughtered in wholesale numbers in the South, particularly in Louisiana. A Pulitzer finalist for that.

Moorhus: That was your outdoor editor that did that, right?

Page 46

Page 47

Howell: Dennis Anderson. Did you know him?

Moorhus: No, but I've been reading your speeches.

Howell: Dennis is great. And I hired a couple of excellent columnists, both away from Minneapolis, one of them my stepson [Nicholas J. Coleman], who are both still there, and hired a number of people away from Minneapolis that were very good. Started a very strong business section. Totally revolutionized the feature sections. Beefed up sports. I mean, a lot of stuff. [Tape interruption.]

Moorhus: You spoke specifically about hiring the columnists. On the stories that you mentioned, were those the initiative of the reporters, or were they your initiative? What's the relationship in that kind of an assignment?

Howell: I think it's creating the atmosphere where good ideas float to the surface. Our two Pulitzer Prize winning projects were ideas of photographers. So they came from lots of different places.

We also did a wonderful series of stories called—the biggest Indian uprising in U.S. history was in Minnesota, the great Sioux uprising, and we re-reported it from the point of view of the Indians, and included their point of view, and we told it 125 years later. It was a dynamite project. Should have won a Pulitzer. Out of everything that didn't win a Pulitzer, that one should have won. It was a wonderful project.

That's just a few things. I just think it's the one time in my life when I felt at one with something. I was at one with that paper and that town. But lots of things happened to take that apart. St. Paul kind of hit the skids financially. Minneapolis grew dominant. The Minneapolis paper got very dominant. I was tired of always screaming at corporate and being in a secondary position. I decided, well, it must be time for me to leave. And this job came floating by. Just about the time when I had had it up to here, this job came floating in. I said, "I'm taking off." By then I was married again, and I knew my husband probably was going to get this job in Washington. So you put all that together, and it just seemed like a very nice mix of events.

Moorhus: Tell me about hiring your stepson.

Howell: Well, I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been prompted by a number of people on my staff who thought I should, and I took it to the man who was my boss, kind of the elder statesman of the newsroom, John Finegan, and he thought it was a good idea. So I had several meetings with Nick, and we kind of worked out the parameters for it, which were that despite our familial relationship, I was going to be his boss, and he had to understand that, and that I wasn't going to set his salary, someone else would set his salary, for obvious reasons, but the people who edited his column, that the family thing couldn't get in the way, that he had to be a pro. And we had several run-ins while he was a columnist, but most of the time we got along well, and I was very pleased I hired him, and I think he's good.

Moorhus: What's the column about?

Howell: He writes for the editorial page now. It's just a general-interest column. He writes a lot about politics and public affairs, and he's very acerbic. I occasionally thought he came on too strong, but basically I liked him. I never got any shit for hiring him. Nobody ever said that was a mistake. He's a very volatile Irish guy, much like his dad [Nicholas Coleman], and so there were

Page 47

Page 48

times when I wanted to kill him, but actually I was never sorry I hired him. It was one those I might murder him, but I wasn't going to fire him. [Laughter.] I wrote a column explaining to people about the relationship and why I was doing it, and hoping they would just—and he was very St. Paul. He'd been born and raised in St. Paul, so he was perfect. And so was the other guy I hired. Joe Soucheray had been born and raised in St. Paul. So they're very popular in St. Paul, so that was a good thing to do. I constantly was having to fight off rear-guard actions with the Minneapolis paper. It was a newspaper war, only they were holding most of the weapons.

Moorhus: In the spring of 1984, the two St. Paul papers merged, right?

Howell: Yes.

Moorhus: What was your role in the merger?

Howell: David Hall and I merged the papers.

Moorhus: And you were at the Pioneer Press.

Howell: Right, and David was the executive editor. I was the managing editor of the Pioneer Press, and then another guy was managing editor of the Dispatch, which since is no longer. They just decided to have one paper, and that was the morning paper. It had been the weaker paper. I was working at the weaker paper, and I built the weaker paper into the stronger paper, and it surpassed the Dispatch—that and market forces. People were more interested in morning papers. So we took the two staffs and combined them and made one all-day newspaper. Still called it the Pioneer Press and the Dispatch, but it was essentially the same newspaper with an updated afternoon version.

It was contentious, and we had to do a lot of things to people. All the old guys who'd worked days had to work nights. We didn't need two city hall reporters, we needed one city hall reporter, so somebody had to—we didn't lay off anybody, but there were a lot of people who were displaced, and it was a time of instability.

Just in the middle of it, David Hall decided to leave and become the editor of the Denver Post, so I became the executive editor. My competitor, internally, became the features editor, and it all worked out. The paper was better for it. It was the right economic decision to make, although, then, years later, the Dispatch, the afternoon paper, finally died, and the Pioneer Press survived, and its name became the name for essentially the whole paper, which is how I wanted it to be, so I was pleased about that. Some of the people who had had a long history with the Dispatch weren't pleased, but I was pleased by that. I thought that my vision for the newspaper prevailed, at least up until I left.

Moorhus: So that was a period of great satisfaction for you.

Howell: Yes, it was. There was frustration and anguish over the continual battering by Minneapolis, and my frustrations over not being able to get the resources I thought I needed in St. Paul, but it was a time of great professional satisfaction, and I grew a lot. I had to learn a lot, and I had to learn it fast.

Moorhus: What kinds of things did you have to learn?

Page 48

Page 49

Howell: I didn't give a shit about sports—still don't. I had to learn about sports, and I had to learn to care about sports, because sports sells newspapers. And I had to learn to think about features coverage. I had to think about the whole newspaper. I had to think about marketing. I'd never thought about marketing. Distribution. I had to become, if not a businessperson, I at least had to really understand the newspaper business better than I ever had before, and I had to learn budgeting and financial matters. I did, and a lot of it I enjoyed. Some of it I didn't. I'll never care about the business side as much as I care about the editorial, the journalism side.

Moorhus: I know from the speeches that you've given me copies of, this is the period when you began getting visibility well beyond the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, right?

Howell: Yes, but my biggest visibility was still in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But I was written about. I ended up on the cover of WJR [Washington Journalism Review], and ended up being written about locally a fair amount, so I became more of a personage. That was okay. I mean, I'm not crazy about it, but it was okay.

Moorhus: During this period, did you set your sights in any way beyond what you were doing then?

Howell: I really didn't. I would have stayed in St. Paul until I retired if it hadn't have been for Peter and this job. It wasn't until I grew totally fed up with what I thought was a corporate unsympathetic to our problems that I left St. Paul. If I had had more resources in St. Paul and more support, I probably would not have left and would have continued a commuter marriage indefinitely. I was very fond of St. Paul. It was the hardest professional decision I ever had to make, to leave. It was wrenching. Then when I had this job offer, corporate decided to try to keep me, but they didn't have anything to send me to. And I, frankly, by that time, didn't want to stay. I had grown very disillusioned. I very much appreciate every day working for this company [Newhouse], because they're non-bureaucratic and they make a lot of money, but that's not all they concentrate on.

But St. Paul, itself, it's painful even to go back. Most of my family's still there, so I go back three or four or five times a year, and that's hard, because I don't like what they've done to the paper [St. Paul Pioneer Press]. I don't like what they've done to the paper, so I don't even read it. It's too hard.

St. Paul is such a precious place, a lot of people never leave it. I'm glad I did, though. I'm glad that all the forces in time pushed me here, because it broadened my vision enormously. I'm a much broader journalist, and a much better journalist, than I was in St. Paul, because I look nationally and internationally at things I never cared about before, and I think that's been very broadening, very good for me.

Moorhus: Tell me how you got connected with Peter, if you were working morning, noon and even Saturday nights during this period.

Howell: Actually, his ex-wife, after my first husband died, had fixed me up with a number of guys. During this whole period, I had a personal life. I dated, but the first significant relationship I had was a guy she'd fixed me up with who lived in Columbia, Missouri. I had stayed in contact with Peter and his then-wife, when they moved from the University of Minnesota to the University of Missouri, and had even been down to visit them once.

Moorhus: When had they moved down there?

Page 49

Page 50

Howell: They moved in '84, I think. They had always been very nice to me, and I had known Peter, actually, when he was married to his first wife, so Peter and I go back to the early seventies.

So I was going with this guy in Columbia, and we saw Peter and Diane on occasion, and then I broke up with this guy in Columbia about the same time that Peter and Diane broke up. There was nothing synergistic there at all. She left him and had some other guy and went off. Then my relationship with this guy kind of petered out.

Peter had told me the last time the four of us were together that he was coming to Minneapolis at some point in time and would call me up, and he did, and asked me out to dinner, but I couldn't go. We had a long telephone conversation about our broken love lives, and I must have talked to him for an hour. I hung up the phone and thought to myself vaguely, "I think he's interested in me." But I thought, probably not.

After that, I got a letter asking me if I'd be interested in seeing him at some point. A lot of time had passed. He was almost divorced by this time. He was about a week away, or two weeks away from getting a divorce. I thought about it, and said yes. So he called me, and we set up a date. We didn't want anybody to see us, because, you know, "big item." So we met in Chicago a couple of weekends, and spent a couple of weekends together, and decided that we were ready to spring ourselves on the world, and I was pretty sure I was going to marry him on our first date. I was pretty sure I was going to marry him as soon as I knew he was interested in me, but I didn't want to rush it.

But I knew the first time I met my first husband that I was incredibly interested in him, and this was a little bit different with Peter. I just knew that we were very much alike, and that both the guy I'd been dating and his ex-wife, they weren't alike—I mean that Peter and I were just very similar kinds of people, both driven, both hard workers.

So we made a commitment to see each other every weekend, until we decided to get married, and then we kept the same commitment. But I'd get on a plane, I'd work all the way to St. Louis, get in a car—or he'd send a car after me or send a driver after me—I'd work all the way until the moment I got to the front door of his house in Columbia. Then the minute I'd leave at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, I'd work all the way back. If he was in Minnesota, even after I was married to him, I worked every Saturday. When I came here, I decided not to do that any longer. I don't work on the weekend any longer, unless I have to.

Moorhus: How long did you maintain that kind of—

Howell: Five years.

Moorhus: Five years? A commuter relationship every weekend?

Howell: Yes.

Moorhus: My word.

Howell: Peter just moved here a year ago.

Moorhus: And at what point in that five years were you married, then?

Page 50

Page 51

Howell: We married after the first year. We married eleven months after our first date.

Moorhus: And that was what date, that you were married?

Howell: August sixth. We just had our wedding anniversary.

Moorhus: August 6th—

Howell: This is the fifth year, so it was '87.

Moorhus: 1987.

Howell: We started dating in '86. [Pause.] I think I'm right about that. No, it's '88. Yes. We got married in 1988, and we started dating in '87.

Moorhus: And all of that time, for five years—

Howell: We only missed about four weekends in that five years.

Moorhus: While you were in Minnesota, and then when you came out here, he stayed in Missouri, before he came out here to Washington?

Howell: Right. I know a number of couples who commute, and it's a very common practice. A lot of people do it. I know two transatlantic commuter marriages. Of course, they don't see each other every weekend; they only see each other about once a month. In fact, I knew another Missouri-Minnesota commuter marriage. In my own circle of friends, I knew four other commuter marriages. Out of that, we're the only ones who now live together. No, two of us live together. The other three are still commuting.

Moorhus: If you had not gotten the job here in Washington, would you have looked for something else to leave Minneapolis, St. Paul?

Howell: Yes. Yes. I had sent my name out. A number of people knew I was interested in moving. My company [Knight-Ridder] didn't, but I had put out feelers to important people in the industry who knew I was good.

Moorhus: And were you looking for an editorial position?

Howell: Yes. I had thought about other kinds of businesses, but I don't think I'm really suited to anything besides the newspaper business.

Moorhus: Where does the kind of job you have here as bureau chief fit into your previous experience? What is it like?

Howell: It's more like being city editor or managing editor, and I'm nearer to the journalism that's being committed out there. When you're the top editor, you have to do so much business side stuff, and budgeting and all of that, that I didn't have a lot of fun, and you don't get to do a lot of journalism.

Moorhus: Were you looking for a position, or a geographic location, or some combination thereof?

Page 51

Page 52

Howell: Some combination. We knew that Washington or New York would be good places for us, or maybe even Chicago. We knew it had to be a big city, San Francisco, L.A., but we knew Washington and New York held the greatest promise, although I wasn't particularly interested in moving to the East Coast. If I had my druthers, I'd be living out West, but there's not a lot of journalism and big universities in Montana and Wyoming.

Moorhus: And what was Peter looking for?

Howell: Peter always did want the job he got, which was the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, which is the big trade association of the big land grant universities, so he's just happy as he can be. And I like this job a lot. I have no intention of leaving it. I have no intention of working for anybody else but the Newhouse family. I like them a lot. It'd take an incredible job to pull me out of here.

Moorhus: Is it controversial to move from something like Knight-Ridder to Newhouse?

Howell: No. It was controversial in the sense that out there in the great world of journalism, Knight-Ridder considers itself better than Newhouse, so they would look down their nose at Newhouse in a way. I don't think they do any longer, because Newhouse is rapidly improving its journalism, and they don't have the incredible bottom line orientation. [Tape