I first met Karen Blumenthal when I was a reporter at The Chronicle and she was a member of the Duke Student Publishing Company board. Like a lot of people, I was initially intimidated by her; if I had to measure up to her, I was never going to make it in journalism. Also like a lot of people, I came to adore her, and she became my most important mentor. (I long ago gave up on measuring up to her.)
Karen seemed like everything a journalist should be, and I wanted to be like her, except for her disturbing love of the Dallas Cowboys. She was canny in her judgments, quick on her feet, and always funny. She was skeptical about any authority, especially any authority she had decided was dubious, which was most of them. She had no patience for bad writing or misuse of the English language. She was never shy or slow to express her opinions on these topics.
But she was also incredibly kind and generous. She was a natural teacher, leader, and editor. As co-chair of the DSPC board with David Ingram, she saw The Chronicle through the 2008 financial crash and began the transition away from print and toward digital (the latter with extreme ambivalence). Their leadership was transformative and salvific, putting a century-old institution on a firm business path for its next century.
Karen did all that while being constantly available to the student staff as a counselor and guide. She taught me to read a balance sheet and to question administrators, to write a lede and manage a staff. Any time I called her, at any hour, she was happy to talk through a story or ethical dilemma. She shepherded me through the meandering and sometimes scary path to professional journalism, and once even helped me get an internship at a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates that didn’t even exist yet.
I’ve been telling people for years that I wouldn’t have become a journalist if not for Karen. (I think I probably told her this at some point, though I can’t be sure and wish I could.) One small grace in the days since her death is realizing how many other people—in so many different circles she touched—looked up to her in the same way. We will all miss her terribly.
David Graham, Trinity ’09, Editor, Vol. 103.