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“The newsroom people admire her,” says media critic Ken Auletta of the Tribune’s new chief, shown here in her office. “The question is, does she have the guts to say, ‘No,’ not just to her reporters but to her bosses?”
Like just about anyone else who has flown in or out of Chicago in the past few years, Ann Marie Lipinski has a story to tell about a simple trip gone awry. Last summer, her flight home from Miami was rerouted due to weather. The plane, Lipinski says they told her, would get to O’Hare by way of Washington, D.C. They landed instead in Knoxville, Tennessee, and that was where Lipinski spent the night.
Unlike just about anyone else who has flown in or out of Chicago, however, Lipinski has access to more than 600 employees and a printing press. At the time of her disjointed journey, she was the Chicago Tribune’s managing editor, the second-highest post in the newsroom. She had the means to respond—not just for herself, but for all the travelers among her readership so ill served by an outmoded air traffic system. So with a little imagination and a lot of logistical magic, Lipinski and her team of loyal editors dispatched reporters to seven airports and five control towers to chronicle a day in the life of air travel in America. Twenty-six reporters in all contributed to the project. Their findings appeared in the paper last November, Lipinski’s personal nightmare transformed into a four-part series called “Gateway to Gridlock.”
This, in Tribune newsroom parlance, was “an Ann Marie story,” a magnum opus (too magnum, some would say) packed with literary detail and a dash of investigative oomph, the kind of story Lipinski has worked hard to bring to the newspaper’s pages in her 23-year rise through the ranks.
Now that rise is complete. In February, she replaced Howard Tyner as the paper’s editor, taking charge of the nation’s seventh-largest newspaper and making official what had been clear for years: Lipinski is the city’s most powerful journalist, the central organizing force in the Tribune newsroom and the person most responsible for what you read in the paper every day.
It’s a paper she has been transforming on her way up, one that will literally and figuratively look different under her control. She is already known for reinvigorating its projects and investigations, and trying to marry bare-knuckles reporting with a literary style of writing. For more than a year she spearheaded a massive redesign that was scheduled for unveiling in March. And there are signs the paper is becoming more aggressive than it has been in the past. It recently sued the city, alleging widespread violations of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. And (skeptical) metro reporters—and their editors—were issued a new mission statement in January that said, “We should regularly present special reports and investigations that make news and expose wrongdoing. We must question authority and provide a voice for the powerless. In doing so, we should set agendas for change, compelling policymakers and readers to act.”
The record books will show that Lipinski, 45, is the first woman to edit the Tribune in its 154-year history, and one of just eight women editing any of the top 50 U.S. newspapers. Some industry observers say that Lipinski, a Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting, can earn a more significant accolade: becoming one of America’s brand-name newspaper editors at a time when they seem to be in short supply.
“She is going to be famous,” says former Time magazine foreign correspondent Charles Eisendrath, a media bigfoot who runs a prestigious journalism fellowship program at the University of Michigan, Lipinski’s alma mater. “Every generation has two or three newspaper editors whose names have marquee value. Gene Roberts, John Seigenthaler, Ben Bradlee. I think Ann Marie will be in that crowd.”
And yet her task is formidable. Like most other papers, the Tribune is losing circulation, its advertising market is softening, and its Internet dreams have been scaled back dramatically. Its parent company’s purchase last year of the Times Mirror corporation diminished the Chicago paper’s overall value to the sprawling Tribune Company empire (the Tribune is now the company’s second-largest newspaper, behind the Los Angeles Times). Lipinski herself says the Tribune has only recently emerged from an identity crisis brought on by the exploding multimedia age. And the paper is still unrelentingly criticized—most notably by author and journalistic powerhouse David Halberstam—as a passionless profit vehicle. He calls the Tribune “a paper of good but hardly great quality.”
It’s the kind of criticism that Lipinski—and her senior editors—are tired of. “This newspaper has taken on every institution in this city in a very public, aggressive way since I’ve been here,” she says, rattling off reporting projects on the City Council, the Chicago Housing Authority, the Chicago Police Department, and the Chicago Park District. “I think of the Tribune as one of our community’s leading citizens, and I don’t say that to honor the paper. I say it out of a sense of obligation. That may sound old-fashioned, but I take it really seriously.”
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Ann Marie Lipinski tells stories the way she wants her reporters to write stories—crisply and with just the right kind of telling detail. She doesn’t just remember the first time she saw an editor standing on a desk in the middle of a newsroom—she remembers the nickel Coke in his hand and his flannel shirt. When she describes the first pressmen she met, she recalls their brush haircuts, white T-shirts, and—making a crimping motion with her hand now to show you rather than tell you—the cigarette packs rolled up in their T-shirts, just above their biceps. In her recollection of an interview with a tarnished alderman, she notes how hot his office was and how he propped open a door.
This is the kind of sensibility she brought to the news pages when she became metro editor in 1991. After her arrival, “writing a story well became one of the values celebrated, along with good reporting and all of the traditional stuff,” says Tribune television critic Steve Johnson, who was a metro reporter at the time.
Consider the story she assigned to George Papajohn, now the deputy projects editor, when a proposal to build an airport near south suburban Peotone surfaced in 1992. Relatively few Tribune reporters or, presumably, readers knew how to get to the tiny town. So Lipinski ordered Papajohn to hop in a cab on North Michigan Avenue and tell the driver, “To Peotone—and step on it!” Papajohn described the 40-plus-mile ride south in the next day’s paper, past Comiskey Park, under a highway sign for Memphis, and arriving in Peotone in front of a ranch house “across from a farm house with a view of the undulating, undeveloped terrain.” Papajohn wrote, “The meter reads $60.20. . . . The odometer, 43.2 miles. The clock, 3:25 p.m. The drive took 55 minutes.”
These cleverly conceived stories were called “centerpieces,” and the idea was to present a “gem,” as one memo from the time puts it, on front of the metro section every day. It was also a way to get photographers and reporters working together, instead of “random photographs in the paper, and stories begging for photographs going unillustrated,” Lipinski says.
But not every centerpiece could reach the bar that stories like Papajohn’s set, and sometimes the result was simply a lightening of the news pages with stories many reporters scorned, such as a detailed account of the confusion people felt over what to wear during a particularly mercurial autumn. (Full disclosure: I was a Tribune reporter for 18 months during this time.)
Reporters who resisted didn’t necessarily dismiss the value of imaginative writing, but worried that the writing was sometimes gimmicky and overdone and at other times untethered from reality. Another concern (one that has persisted) was that some people who were hired or promoted due to their writing flair lacked big-league reporting skills and were even prone to error.
When Lipinski became managing editor in 1995, her predecessor, Dick Ciccone, wrote a farewell memo to the staff that was widely perceived as a reaction against the features-oriented approach to the news. “For a dozen years I preached about good writing being essential to convincing the reader that the newspaper was a pleasure not a duty,” Ciccone wrote. “I sermonized that presenting the facts in a traditional fashion no longer distinguished us from the many other resources of the same facts. I fear I may be responsible for the avalanche of anecdotal leads, italicized precedes and other literary devices that add little information for the reader. I should have . . . [made] it clear that great writing can only occur after great reporting.”
Today Ciccone says that “perhaps, in a veiled way, I was taking a shot at lifestyle [stories].” He was also warning that the paper shouldn’t abandon strong reporting in favor of pretty but ultimately shallow writing projects. “It’s very, very easy to delude yourself that this was very nice, it looked nice, and it sounded nice,” he says. “But where’s the reporting?”
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Photograph: Matthew Gilson