I found that in a batch of email exchanges I read through after I learned of Kari Howard’s death on Jan. 10. These simple lines struck me as so representative of her character as a person and as an editor — tremendous personal warmth, a whimsical curiosity and a fine eye for the nuances of phrase and meaning.
Kari was a longtime editor at the Los Angeles Times, including of Column One, the paper’s signature narrative journalism feature, and most recently was the storytelling editor at Reuters in London. I knew her as the editor of Storyboard, where she was characteristically generous with her warmth and whimsy and where lovers of literary journalism learned so much from all the nuances her fine eye picked up.
Kari produced a weekly ‘playlist’ newsletter for readers — Storyboard and other distinctive pieces paired with her recommendations for music to read by. “Story soundtracks,” she called them. To honor Kari’s own gift of phrase and meaning, here’s a playlist of my favorite Kari soundtracks…
- Kari was devoted to traditional narrative, but she was also devoted to exploring how storytelling is changing. This piece from February 2018, A tribute to audio storytelling, and to the memory of bedtime stories, celebrates how hearing stories is sometimes better than reading them.
- This May 2017 meditation on what distinguishes literary journalism from news writing (and what unites them), A celebration of narrative journalism’s differences, and its singular strengths, articulates Kari’s belief in the power of felt detail and the embrace of emotion in reporting and writing.
- Kari loved Maine, and she was also committed to recognizing great journalism from places other than the big titles in the big cities. This Annotation Tuesday from October 2016, Brian Kevin and “The Belfast Operation”, explores the challenges of “omni-multitasking” at the regional magazine The Down East and what it’s like reporting in and from Maine’s small towns.
- I love David Bowie and Henry David Thoreau, so I was a sucker for Kari’s Bowie and Thoreau — now there’s a pair to draw to from June 2016. It is also a wonderful example of Kari’s gifts as a writer and her virtuosity in matching great verbal narratives with great vocal ones.
- Kari’s eye often picked up intriguing patterns in the news and in Storyboard’s coverage of narrative, such as the associations she found between The election of Donald Trump and the death of Leonard Cohen. In Reporting on racism in America: One writer confronted with rage, another driven by it from October 2017, she connected the dots between the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the coverage of Elle Reeve, then with Vice, of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
- In 2017, Kari launched Storyboard’s ‘One Great Sentence’ series (now known as ‘One Great Moment’), narrative insights inspired by small moments of excellence in storytelling. Of all the great moments Kari created for Storyboard readers, this one from June 2016, Please: No dancing on the grave of beautiful storytelling (It’s not dead and never will be), is for me the greatest: “I know that old-fashioned storytelling will never go away. You know, where a writer takes you on a magic carpet ride of beautiful language and compelling characters and lets you leave the world of NOW NOW NOW for a few minutes, at least.”
Back in June of 2016, Kari wrote her introductory note as editor of Storyboard from her beloved Maine farmhouse. From her porch she could see — and smell — what she described as possibly the biggest lilac bush in Waldo County: “In the space of just two weeks, I’ve watched the buds go from deep purple to lilac to blush with an edging of brown. But somehow their impermanence makes them that much more beautiful.”
Kari imagined Storyboard “as a community center with a bit of a coffeehouse vibe, where people can hang out and, most importantly, have a great conversation.” The conversations Kari started are still ongoing, made that much more beautiful by her storytelling.
James Geary is deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation, and editor of Nieman Reports.