Debra Leithauser radiates energy. She walks fast, thinks faster and brings pizzazz to a conversation about the importance of credible news coverage in our evolving media culture. It’s one of her favorite topics.
“I love going out and helping people see that a vibrant press is essential to their lifestyle,” she says. “I think people forget that not only does the paper have an important role, but they do, too. It’s about participating in the community conversation.”
Leithauser, 45, makes an immediate impression, from her ideas for community collaborations and new initiatives to the raucous orange she painted the largest wall in her new office. (She may well be the first Statesman publisher to add a bold dash of color to her environment.)
Coming to Boise feels a little like fate, she says. A few years ago, when Leithauser began pursuing the path to becoming a publisher, she made a short list of McClatchy’s 29 papers where she would like to live and work. Boise was on that list, she says. So was State College, Pa., which became her first publisher assignment in January 2014.
When former Statesman publisher Mike Jung announced his departure in August, Leithauser put her hat in the ring.
An accomplished writer, editor and innovator, Leithauser’s career developed on a parallel line as newspapers transformed from niche print products to multimedia platforms such as computers, tablets and phones. And she kept pace. That experience helps her see a broader picture of the industry and sets the tone for the Statesman’s present and future.
“If I could ban one word it would be ‘newspaper,’” she says. “That’s not what I am. I’m a news provider, and it doesn’t matter where you read me — Facebook, Twitter, IdahoStatesman.com. My job is to make sure people know how to connect with us and that we’re providing information they want to connect with.”
Leithauser grew up in a military family, living in Hawaii and Florida. She fell in love with the news business in the 10th grade at Winter Park High School in Winter Park, Fla., when she took a journalism class that was required to join the yearbook staff.
“When we got to the part about print journalism, I loved everything about it,” she says. “I loved picas. I loved headlines. I loved bylines and everything.” She spent the rest of high school working with the newspaper staff instead. She graduated with a degree in journalism with honors from the University of Florida, where she became an Alumna of Distinction in 2013.
She’s worked in almost every sector of the business as she made her way up from compositor — the person who literally pasted together the text and visuals to prepare pages for printing — to editor-in-chief at McClatchy-Tribune, a joint multimedia venture between the McClatchy and Tribune companies that was the largest supplemental news wire service in the United States.
There were significant stops on the way, such as nearly 10 years at The Washington Post, where she edited the award-winning Sunday Magazine and its Going Out Guide online entertainment site and app.
She met her husband, Tom, while in college in Florida. They worked together at the Orlando Sentinel, where he was a reporter. He’s now a reporter and editor who works remotely for Telecommunications Reports. They have two sons, Luke, 12, and Zack, 7.
The position of president and publisher allows Leithauser to employ all of her skills and also apply what she’s learned so far, she says. Sometimes it feels like sitting at the balance point on a seesaw — you don’t have to struggle to keep it balanced, you just enjoy the ride, she says.
“You have to get used to the ground moving under your feet,” she says. “I kind of like it. It feels like dancing.”
What are the strongest skills you bring to the publisher’s position?
I did this personality test once, and I was deemed a “maximizer” and an “arranger.” I can look at people and see what they’re good at and figure out how to maximize that, and I constantly like to arrange stuff. It’s like putting a giant puzzle together to find a better solution. Part of it is natural. Part of it is that you just can’t stay the same. That’s the reality of the job. I like making things better. That’s what I get jazzed about. That’s what’s going to get us to the other side of this crazy time.
Do you think all the changes the media has gone through in the past 10 years are good for journalism?
They haven’t been bad for journalism. It has to evolve with what the user wants and how they’re reading us. Ultimately, the newsrooms I’ve been in, the ethics are still there, the inquiring minds are still there, the need to tell meaningful stories in people’s lives is still there. It’s just how we do it that’s changed.
If you weren’t in journalism, what would you be doing?
Running a nonprofit. I like to feel good about what I do, and there’s no better feeling than helping others. I think I’d still be at the helm because I like to make things happen. I’m a little Type A that way.
What’s your go-to outdoor activity?
We love being outdoors but our main thing is sailing. Tom has been sailing since he was 5. He once crossed the Atlantic on a replica of the Schooner America. We’d been married about two years when the opportunity came up. He asked the Sentinel for a leave, and they said, “No,” so I said, “Then quit and go do it.” We didn’t have kids or a mortgage at the time. So he did it. We’ll probably get a boat and get on the water at Lucky Peak.
Are you a dog or a cat person? Wine or beer?
We have a cat — Jango, named after Jango Fett in “Star Wars.” (Can you tell I have boys?) He’s the fifth cat my husband and I have had over our 20-plus years together, and he’s the best of the bunch. He’s like a dog, in fact — affectionate, sweet, fun and feisty. I’d like a dog, too, and I think we’ll get one eventually when the time is right for our family. My childhood dog, Shadow, was the absolute best. I need to find another pup like her.
As for wine vs. beer? Totally depends. Hot summer day on a boat? Give me a beer. Out with girlfriends? It’s wine time. But my all-time favorites are Bacardi and Diet Coke or vodka tonic. Both with a lime.
What do you do for fun? What do you do to relieve stress?
I’m sort of addicted to my FitBit right now, so hitting those 10,000 steps a day definitely helps me de-stress. We’re a family who likes to be outdoors — hiking, biking, sailing — and there’s nothing better than beautiful vistas to calm the mind and remind you what really matters in life.
What three movies would you most like to watch on a long flight?
▪ “Begin Again.” Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are completely charming in this story about love that isn’t quite a love story. Plus there’s Adam Levine — I’m a big fan — and a great soundtrack. I’ve actually watched this movie on several flights. It is just an easy way to spend two hours.
▪ “Star Trek (2009).” JJ Abrams remade a classic and did such a tremendous job of it. I’m a bit of a sci-fi geek, and Chris Pine really captures a young James Kirk. If I want a movie with a bit of suspense and some intense action scenes, this is a go-to. We have the 3-D version, and I never tire of watching the opening scene.
▪ “West Side Story.” I’m a sucker for musicals, and this is one of my favorites. My dad loved this movie — he was a musician — and he made sure he exposed my sister and me to musicals at a young age. Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein did an amazing job of telling this tragic story and setting it to music. I still find myself hoping Maria and Tony will somehow have a different outcome. Hopeless romantic, I guess.
Who or what inspires you?
My dad, my husband, my kids, my friends, my sister, my co-workers. I find inspiration in watching those around me succeed or just deal with whatever life throws at them.
Did / do you have a mentor?
So many people, both women and men, have helped me along the way. I couldn’t have had half the success I’ve had without them. I don’t want to single out any one person — there’s too many to name — but at every job, I’ve made a strong connection with at least one person who has helped me in my next role. And those people continue to help me, inspire me and push me. At times, they had more faith in me than I had in myself, and that helped me take chances when I needed to. A huge thank you to them all. Now I see my role changing to mentoring the next generation of talent. I have a huge debt to pay back to those who helped me.
In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
Wow. Tough question, and my answer would change based on the day. Right now, I’d pick Margaret Cobb Ailshie, the first woman publisher of the Statesman. Who better to talk to about how to lead the paper forward, grow our audience, get involved in the community and become a beloved leader to the staff? She’s a Boise icon, and sharing a meal with her would be an honor, an education and a lot of fun.
What has surprised you the most about Idaho so far?
How cool Boise is. I didn’t know what to expect when I first visited a few months ago, but it exceeded every expectation. Vibrant Downtown, super nice people, amazing views, just a cool vibe all the way around. What’s not to love? I’m a bit of a foodie, too, and I’m excited to check out some more of the restaurants.
What motto do you live by?
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. Simple, but so true.
What is on your bedside reading table?
“All the Light You Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr (Simon & Schuster). I’m a little behind the curve on finishing this one; it seems like everyone else has already read it. I was really excited to find out that he (Doerr) lives in Boise. Don’t tell me how it ends!
What is on your playlist?
Right now, my iPhone cues up Lanterna’s “Desert Ocean” and plays “Luminous” every time my car starts. It’s an instrumental piece, kind of atmospheric and hopeful. It lifts me up. I sort of think of it as my “Welcome to Boise” anthem, because it plays every morning as I come up on the Connector, see those amazing Foothills and prepare to take on a new day.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Hmmm. Pedicures … Taylor Swift (a little embarrassing but true) … a good Argentinian Malbec. How about all three of those together, with a piece of dark chocolate?
About the Idaho Statesman
The first edition of the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman was printed on July 26, 1864, in a windowless log cabin at Main and 6th streets. One hundred and fifty-one years later, about 200,000 people read the Idaho Statesman in print, online and via other platforms weekly. The Statesman moved to its current location, 1200 N. Curtis Road, in 1972. Learn more about the Statesman at IdahoStatesman.com.