As a reporter, Vicki Gowler was shot at by someone who didn’t want to talk to her.
As an editor, she once chased a boss all the way to the men's room door to ensure her reporters got good story assignments.
And she shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a story that exposed academic fraud in the University of Minnesota’s basketball program.
She did it all with the quiet determination and passion for readers that guides her management as editor of the Idaho Statesman today.
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Those “todays,” however, are dwindling.
After nearly 43 years as a reporter and editor that took Gowler from her family farm in Illinois to Miami, Washington, D.C., Duluth and St. Paul, Minn., and Boise, she will retire March 31.
Gowler, who turns 65 in April, will trade the demands of running a newsroom for spending more time with 21 great nephews and nieces, visiting friends scattered across the country and traveling to Italy, the Galápagos Islands and other locales.
“When you have a job like mine, you don’t have enough time to see family and friends,” she said.
Her departure means one of the best journalists in the business will be leaving, said Anders Gyllenhaal, vice president for news at the McClatchy Company, the Statesman’s owner.
“Her knowledge of this kind of work runs very deep,” said Gyllenhaal, who has known Gowler since the two worked as reporters at the Miami Herald some 30 years ago. “She knows what she is doing. We kept hoping this day wouldn’t come.”
Gowler is committed to high-quality journalism, said Debra Leithauser, the Statesman’s publisher, who arrived in Boise in November.
Gowler is a “strong manager, creative thinker, a real problem-solver,” who represents her industry and her newsroom extremely well, said Leithauser, who knew Gowler was considering retirement before her arrival.
At the Idaho Statesman, Gowler led the paper through one of its toughest times as the Great Recession cut into advertising revenues just as readers all over the country were moving to the Internet to get their information.
Through it all, Gowler and her staff kept listening to readers and advertisers and rethinking how to serve them best with fewer resources. While the Statesman continues to be profitable and has more readers than ever across its many different print and digital platforms, the recession cost her half of the Statesman’s newsroom staff between 2007 and 2016, Gowler said.
She put a premium on focusing on readers’ high-interest topics, fulfilling their desire for stories with depth and finding ways to save them time, including with the popular Catching Up pages, and training her staff to think beyond the print product.
“It was the best place to be in the worst time in the industry,” Gowler said of her talented staff who embraced the changes needed and mastered new skills, from shooting video to using social media.
Under Gowler’s leadership, the Statesman was named a Pulitzer finalist in 2008 for its coverage of then- Sen. Larry Craig, who denied he is gay after being caught in a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
At Gowler’s urging, the Statesman had investigated rumors about Craig for several months and uncovered a “he said-he said” story, but then she held it until something more definitive happened. After Craig’s arrest became public, Gowler green-lighted the story.
Greg Hahn, who worked in the newsroom at the time, said Gowler resisted the urge many newspapers might have had to print such a story as soon as they gathered the information.
“It wasn’t just about this big ‘gotcha’ moment,” said Hahn, Boise State University associate vice president of communication and marketing.
Gowler grew up on a farm in Cisco, Ill., nearly three hours southwest of Chicago. Her house was surrounded by farms and nestled between her two sets of grandparents’ homes.
She talks even today about being a “farmer’s daughter” and that life has imbued her with a sense that the most important journalism is the kind that affects everyday readers.
She went to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, planning to become a lawyer. She says she became an accidental journalist when she majored in journalism to avoid a foreign-language requirement she couldn’t complete because of her difficulty hearing accents.
“I rationalized that this is good, because learning how to report, write, research and find out the truth were good things if you were going to become a lawyer,” she said.
After college, she took her three news clips and got a job on an 18,000-circulation daily in Watseka, Ill., just an hour north of her hometown.
She reported on police, courts, education and county government. She discovered a man who was running an illegal landfill, and when she went to talk with him about it, he took a shot at her. “That was scary,” she said. She still got the story with the help of a local pilot.
She also discovered a housing development in the county that was marketed to African-Americans in inner-city Chicago, a mere 60 minutes away.
Many moved there, but when the project was approved before the developer finished it, he took off. Streets were not built. There weren’t fire hydrants. One person died of a heart attack because an ambulance couldn’t get to the home. A house burned down, Gowler said.
The day after the series ran, she said, the county commission met and voted to complete the development’s infrastructure.
“This is so cool,” she remembers thinking. “I can make a difference.”
She never went to law school.
Gowler also learned to fight for stories. At her second job as a police reporter in Quincy, Ill., the city editor wouldn’t send her out to serious accidents or murder scenes. He had a pair of daughters close to Gowler’s age, and couldn't see them being around that gruesome news.
She told the editor he had to give her those stories. “If you didn’t want a woman cops reporter, you shouldn’t have hired me,” she told him.
She was never stopped from going on those assignments again.
At the Miami Herald, from 1978 to 1988, Gowler “grew up as a journalist” and learned to be an editor. After moving to the Washington, D.C., bureau of Knight Ridder, the company that owned the Miami Herald, she struggled to get her reporters good story assignments, even when she pitched the ideas in the morning news meeting.
The bureau chief, who drank lots of Diet Coke, often ended the meeting abruptly to head to the bathroom.
Apparently, male editors would follow him there to finish the meeting and get the best stories for their reporters.
When she discovered what was happening, she followed the bureau chief to the bathroom one day.
He stopped outside the door and asked if she was going to follow him in. “Only if I have to,” Gowler replied.
From then on, meetings were no longer concluded in the men’s room, she said.
Gowler’s Pulitzer followed several months of investigation into the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team while she was managing editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
On the eve of the NCAA tournament, the paper reported that the school’s basketball coach had used money in his budget to pay a woman to write papers and complete homework assignments for team members.
The paper didn’t plan to do the story during the tournament, but that’s when it was ready.
Accused players were unable to compete. The team lost.
“The community was so angry with us,” Gowler said.
The university president, however, conducted an independent investigation and concluded everything in the coverage was accurate. If the athletes had played and won, they would have had to forfeit the games.
Her move to Boise came when she raised her hand to integrate a new Knight Ridder paper into the company – and had a chance to live in a new area of the country, only four hours from one of her four sisters.
“I love living in Boise. Everything we tell visitors and newcomers – easy access to outdoors, vibrant downtown, strong sense of community – is so true,” she said.
As she prepares to retire, Gowler said she looks back on her “accidental” career and has no regrets.
“I believed every day that I was making a difference, supporting our democracy, that what I did had meaning and was valuable, that I could put my heart and soul into it,” Gowler said.
Search for an editor
Debra Leithauser, Idaho Statesman publisher, will begin a national search for a new editor. She will be looking for someone who knows the West and who can continue the Idaho Statesman's growth in online and social media. She will be looking for a digital leader, she said.
Highlights of Vicki S. Gowler’s career
▪ 2005-2016 Editor and Vice President of the Idaho Statesman
▪ Pulitzer finalist in 2008 for coverage of then-Sen. Larry Craig, who denied he is gay after being caught in a sex sting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
▪ 2001-2005 Editor and Senior Vice President of the St. Paul Pioneer Press
▪ 1997-2001 Managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press
▪ Pulitzer winner in 2000 for coverage of University of Minnesota men’s basketball team’s academic fraud
▪ 1993-1997 Executive editor of the Duluth News Tribune
▪ 1996 Knight Ridder’s Excellence Award in Customer Commitment
▪ 1988-1993 Assistant news editor in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau
▪ Ran coverage of 1992 presidential election for all 29 Knight Ridder newspapers
▪ Pulitzer finalist in 1991 for coverage of inconsistencies in state Medicaid spending
▪ 1978-1988 Reporter, editor at Miami Herald
▪ 1973-1978 Reporter at two daily newspapers in central Illinois