Religion journalism loses advocate in Deb Howell
By Michelle Boorstein
People who care about religion news, and in particular its intersection with politics, lost an influential advocate last week.
Deborah Howell was former Washington bureau chief for Newhouse Newspapers and Washington Post ombudsman, but I think it may have been her role supervising Religion News Service for a decade for which she took up the banner most exuberantly. She died last Friday in a car accident while traveling in New Zealand.
I met Deborah in 2005 when she came to the Post, and she was a total ball of energy. Tiny and super-fit (keep in mind she was in her 60s), she made clear to the religion staff immediately that she would be watching us and our religion coverage, which she -- before so, so many others -- had recognized as an essential journalism beat. She got dozens of letters every week, but always made sure to follow through on readers' questions, comments and complaints about the Post's religion coverage. And she had many of her own.
So I admit sometimes I felt she stalked my email in-box. But in truth she was the best advocate as well for us religion reporters. She used her weight and her space in the paper to talk about the Post's decision to eliminate one-third of its religion-writing staff a few years ago, when Alan Cooperman left the job of national religion reporter to edit for the Post's book section. At the time, Jacqueline Salmon and I were Metro religion reporters, focusing on the region, and Deborah often worried aloud how national and international angles would get covered with just two people. Jacqui and I took up Alan's coverage areas as well, but every time some religion news didn't get in the paper that Deborah thought should have been, she attributed it - on her page, or in an email to the Post higher-ups - to this staff cut. She made sure everyone knew that religion news, and the religion angle of news in general - especially political and foreign affairs news - was ridiculous to ignore or cover superficially.
This is such a period of change for journalism, and for religion journalism, with many major news organizations deciding to jettison their religion beats in favor of things they view as more "core" - maybe local news, maybe political news. It sounds self-serving coming from a religion reporter, but Deborah was a feisty, wise voice in my view, because she knew it's impossible to understand our world without a good grasp of its religious and spiritual components.
RIP Deborah! We miss you already.
Michelle Boorstein| January 4, 2010; 8:15 AM ET | Category: God in Government Save & Share:
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