Deborah Howell, a Passion for Life and Journalism

Just heard, through Norm Larson’s facebook page, that Deborah Howell was killed Jan. 2 in an accident in New Zealand.

Deborah was one of the first women to a be a major editor at several newspapers, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press and The Minneapolis Star. I had the pleasure of working for Howell, and of being barked at — “Benidt move that goddam copy NOW” — and being splattered with her maniacal laughter all at the same time, all while her eyes gobbled up everything on the screen before her and her fingers danced over the keyboard.

Howell was city editor, I think, at the old Minneapolis Star when I arrived. With Dave Nimmer and wonderful characters like Zeke Wigglesworth and Tom Helgeson, Howell led our Star to beat the dull tight-assed Tribune down the hall as often as we beat the papers across the river. She loved the competition to get a good story, and she loved the telling of good stories. When she’d praise one of my stories — she never overdid it — as a good yarn, I was in heaven. (And the maddening joy of daily journalism is, after you’ve had a piece on the front page, the next words you’d hear from Howell were, “OK, Benidt, what have you got for us today?” Nothing lasts.)

Deb was married to Nick Coleman, the DFL majority leader in the Minnesota Senate — a politician back when that word was a positive in Minnesota. Nick died a lingering death, and that was when all of us in the newsroom saw, as I think Nimmer said it, the definition of grace under pressure as Deb dealt with the loss.

Howell loved newspapering, and held major jobs at The Washington Post and Newhouse newspapers after leaving the Twin Cities. I’ll always remember her zesty crazy laugh, her grin, her wicked wicked sense of humor and the way she made the daily chaos of a metro newspaper flow with as much joy as adrenaline.

In the old Atex computer system at the Star, there was something called the IPL — the interprocessing link — that would get jammed and keep stories from flowing. It drove her nuts, but gave her a metaphor she loved. When she couldn’t come up with a word or a name, she’d shake her tight-curled head, grin and say, “My IPL is backed up!”

Howell believed deeply in the value of journalism in a free society. She believed passionately that somebody had to hold the bastards accountable. She helped me, with her brutally honest “delete” key, cut out the purple prose and make writing simple and clear. She made me proud to be a journalist. And she made the enterprise of daily reporting feel significant and fun. Bless you, Deborah — and thanks.


— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from University of Texas at Austin)government loans nice

9 thoughts on “Deborah Howell, a Passion for Life and Journalism

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Thanks for bringing the vibrant Ms. Howell alive for those who didn’t know of her, and for the picture of the newsroom when the newspaper meant so much to so many.

  2. bruce benidt says:

    David Carr of the NY Times did, not surprisingly, a lovely piece on Howell:

    One more memory — Howell (and it was almost always “Howell,” not Deb or Deborah) would take my expense report when I handed it in, hold it up and say with a cheshire grin — “Another piece of fiction from the desk of Bruce Benidt.”

    I’m sure she said that to all the expense reports, but I’d like to think she saved that comment just for me.

  3. Sara Barrow says:

    Thanks Bruce, I have read so many articles about Deborah Howell. I am pretty sure she yelled at me during my flack days at MMMG. All of what I have read makes me wish I knew her..

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