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."
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?"
The Tribune today is studded with examples of literary technique that in some cases is based on extensive reporting and, in other cases, may showcase writing talent that doesn't appreciably add relevant information to the story. The first installment of "Gateway to Gridlock" was presented in three "Acts" and an "Epilogue." An examination of how a woman was killed by window glass that fell from the CNA building was presented as "a story in two parts," while a series last year called "The River Congo" was "a journey in three parts." "Partners in Peril," which chronicled the events leading to the death of rookie police officer Michael Ceriale, was presented in serial form, and indeed Lipinski says the newsroom was flooded each day with phone calls from readers who wanted to know what happened in the next day's installment, even though, as she points out, everyone already knew that in the end Ceriale died. (Daily sales rose by 20,000 copies for each of the four days "Partners in Peril" ran, according to the Tribune's media relations office.)
These projects hardly lacked outstanding reporting. But "telling a story, not just telling the news," as several Trib staffers referred to it, can be a perilous game. Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner praises "Gateway to Gridlock" but articulates a concern several other reporters expressed. "There's a temptation to fill in the blanks that reporting always leaves you with, in order to smooth out the narrative. On the other hand," he says wryly, "your stories become more readable and probably attract a larger audience."
Lipinski bristles at the notion that writing trumps reporting in her newsroom. "To choose between reporting and writing is kind of like choosing between water and oxygen. To get through the day, you probably need both," she says. "Sometimes it's the way we tell the story that draws people in."
The attention Lipinski gives to large-scale projects has resulted in another complaint. Most newspaper editors are used to hearing reporters gripe that they don't have time to get away from the daily grind to take a hard, sophisticated look at a topic. Some Tribune reporters complain that the editors are so enamored with the big story that they don't care about daily beat reporting. That's also the view, although for a slightly more complicated reason, of one of America's best-known media observers—a view put into the public eye last fall.
In 1979, David Halberstam examined CBS, Time magazine, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times in his book about the rise of modern media, The Powers That Be. Last September, in the media watchdog magazine Brill's Content, he published an essay adapted from a new introduction to the book. The essay was called "The Powers That Were," and Halberstam used the Tribune Company, which wasn't examined in the original book, as an example of a news organization that, in his view, eschews greatness because of its relentless drive for profits. (The argument echoes the thesis of former Tribune editor Jim Squires's 1993 book Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers.)
In his Brill's piece, Halberstam says the Tribune "gives off the feeling of an ownership whose passion is for its stock, not its readership nor the news it is reporting." Halberstam says he read the Tribune closely and developed relationships with several of its reporters during his stay here three years ago researching his 1999 book on Michael Jordan. In essence, he argues that the company doesn't reinvest enough of its massive profits into the newspaper, instead spending just enough to maintain a veneer of credibility and cultivate multimedia stars. For example, he says, high-paid columnists and specialty writers who can be promoted through the company's various media outlets—TV, radio, the Internet—are valued far more than reporters with the less glamorous but more significant jobs of covering city beats.
The article prompted James O'Shea, a Tribune editor whom Lipinski has since promoted to be her managing editor, to object in a letter to Brill's. O'Shea pointed to the paper's many projects, including its nationally recognized examination of the death penalty, as clear examples of the paper's passion for journalistic excellence. In the same letters column, Halberstam stood by his arguments.
When I talked to Halberstam in January, he was even more forceful in his criticism, accusing the paper's management of calculating just how much serious journalism it had to do to protect its "brand" while letting the rest of the paper go to hell. "They came up with a formula and they showcase certain kinds of people and certain kinds of stories—'Look how good we are,'" Halberstam says. He accuses O'Shea of selling out his journalistic values to the bean counters. "I read O'Shea's letter," Halberstam says, "and I thought he should be ashamed of himself."
In a fierce defense, O'Shea says Halberstam underestimates the quality of the Tribune's projects. "With the demise of a lot of investigative reporting across the country, we decided we wanted to make this place a mecca for that. . . . [W]hat we're engaged in is a more creative form of investigative journalism." And Halberstam, O'Shea says, has "no evidence whatsoever that anything's downhill" because of the paper's commitment to projects.
Halberstam doesn't know Lipinski. But the situation makes him suspicious. The corporate executives who run a paper like the Tribune, he says, "find an editor who fits their value system, someone who is popular and well liked, and they make it very, very profitable" with a bonus system for meeting financial goals.
Those goals are quite high. The Tribune Company's profit margin is among industry leaders and has grown steadily since the company went public in 1983. In 1989, the profit margin was 17 percent; in 1999 it hit 23.9 percent. Both figures dwarf margins at most non-media companies. (In 2000, the company's margin slipped to 21 percent, probably due to its acquisition of the less profitable Times-Mirror Company.) Tribune newspapers have an even higher margin—29.2 percent in 1999—than its media empire overall. The company's annual report does not break out the Chicago Tribune's financials.
Another high-profile observer, New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, researched the Tribune for a 1998 installment in the American Journalism Review's series State of the American Newspaper. Auletta's article, called "Synergy City," explored the Tribune Company's approach to delivering news across media platforms. Auletta concluded that the Tribune Company management was not oblivious to the importance of the newspaper's integrity, but still risked inadvertently damaging the paper by relying too heavily on market research and advertiser desires, instead of journalistic enterprise.
An editor facing these issues today, Auletta says, has the complex task of satisfying corporate bosses while protecting the franchise. "In the new world order, an editor has to walk in both worlds, has to be able to read a budget, to control costs, to sell the publication and market it, to worry about demographics and serving a readership desirable to advertisers," he told me. "If you don't, you're not going to be editor for very long. The question is, does the editor have the balance to be able to walk with a foot in both camps, and be able to say to the suits, 'No, we're not going to go there'?"
Does Lipinski fill the bill?
"The newsroom people admire her. She stood in very good stead in her newsroom, but she also had the ability to get along with the suits. They felt comfortable with her, like she wasn't going to lecture them," Auletta says. "The question is, does she have the guts to say 'No,' not just to her reporters but to her bosses? That is a question of character, the testing of which is yet to be determined."
None of the more than two dozen current and former Tribune reporters and editors I spoke to for this story questioned Lipinski's commitment to journalism, and it is clear she has had a lifelong romance with newspapers. That's why I found it strange that she was reluctant to sit for an interview for this article—it took six weeks to make it happen. Then, when I put a tape recorder on the table in her office, she was visibly discomfited. "Let's just chat," she said. (The recorder stayed off.)
What makes it more curious is that she has such a great story to tell about what most journalists would describe as a dream career. She grew up in Trenton, Michigan, a middle-class suburb of Detroit that she describes as "swimming pools, ice-skating rinks, good schools, neat houses." Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her father a barber who also owned a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream shop. The Lipinski home valued the daily paper. "The Detroit News—the largest circulation afternoon daily in America!" her father would proudly intone as he cracked it open. He gave the paper a thorough read every day, a habit he passed to Ann Marie, the eldest of four kids. Lipinski would later learn that her mother had once aspired to a newspaper career but instead had been steered toward teaching by Catholic school nuns who thought a newsroom wasn't an appropriate place for a woman.
But by the time she was in high school, Ann Marie could hardly think of doing anything else. "I was attracted to finding things out and telling people about them," she says. "And I loved the life, the newspaper milieu. I thought the newspaper had the most interesting students, funny, smart, different. Not a type. Other groups had types. The newspaper had all different types."
In her senior year at Trenton High, she edited the Trojan Trumpet. "They quit printing scores and who wore what to the dance and began printing relevant social issues," recalls Trenton school district superintendent Donald Kolcheff, then a Trenton High math teacher. "It caused quite a stir. Parents were concerned, and the faculty had substantial discussions of whether this was appropriate. She turned [the paper] into a sincere attempt to be a journalistic product."
Trenton's Class of '74 voted Lipinski most ambitious.
On the first day of her freshman year at the University of Michigan, she dropped off her belongings in her dorm room and hightailed it to 420 Maynard Street, the Michigan Daily newsroom, only to find the newspaper wouldn't hold its first organizational meeting of the year for another week. It wasn't long until she was covering Ann Arbor politics. "Somehow, walking in there as a freshman, she knew how to do this stuff," says Dan Biddle, a Daily colleague who later won his own Pulitzer Prize, and is now the deputy projects editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Lipinski also met her future husband at the Daily, freelance photographer Steve Kagan, whose work today appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. (They live in Ukrainian Village with their seven-year-old daughter.)
In the summer between her junior and senior years, Lipinski interned at The Miami Herald, then returned to Michigan as coeditor of the Daily. "I learned that newspapers can't be democracies," she says. "In a page one meeting you can pretend it's a democracy, but at the end of the day somebody has to make a decision and be responsible for that decision."
Though she was a few credits short of a degree, Lipinski arrived at 435 North Michigan Avenue a Chicago Tribune intern in the summer of 1978 and never left. (Sixteen years later, University of Michigan officials deemed her internships worthy of the needed credits and granted her a bachelor's degree in American culture.) A new pope was named that summer, and in an interview he mentioned relatives he thought he had in Chicago. "Ann Marie called everybody by that name in every Chicago area phone book, dozens of them," recalls Ellen Soeteber, then the Tribune's weekend city editor and now the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It turned out the pope's relatives lived in Michigan. But Lipinski wrote a page one story anyway—an amusing read about the gaggle of Chicago families desperately searching their family trees hoping to find they were related to the new pope. The Tribune hired her.
After a few years as a features writer, she was transferred to the metro staff. She had the good fortune to get an assignment that initially didn't seem to hold much promise but that wound up greatly affecting the Tribune you read today. A New Hampshire woman had come forward to say she had falsely accused a Country Club Hills man named Gary Dotson of rape. Lipinski was paired with a reporter deemed so unpromising that he had been told to look for another job. His name was John Kass. "A former metro editor said that I couldn't report and I couldn't write," Kass recalls. "I thought my career was over and I was going to go into the produce business with my brother. Or I was gonna be a skip tracer and go after deadbeats."
The Dotson story was the city's great melodrama of 1985, a tale whose truth was buried under the strained credibility of both accused and accuser. It ended with the governor of Illinois, James Thompson, presiding over a hearing of the Prisoner Review Board. Thompson commuted Dotson's sentence despite believing him guilty.
Kass and Lipinski teamed up again to expose a scam involving the sale of "weeping" religious statues, and Kass's Tribune career was saved. Lipinski earned his undying loyalty for sticking by him when other colleagues stayed away. "That's when you remember your colleagues and friends," Kass says. "When you're the 'disappeared' one and they don't let you disappear."
Years later Lipinski and then editor Howard Tyner, now a Tribune Publishing vice-president, took Kass to lunch at Shaw's Crab House. "They sat in the nonsmoking section and ordered iced tea," Kass recalls. "I thought, This is bullshit; gimme a Camel and a martini." After some polite conversation, Lipinski handed Kass a rolled-up newspaper page tied with a ribbon. Kass was confused. "'That's page three,'" Kass recalls her saying. "'That's your page.'" It was her way of telling Kass he had been chosen to replace the late Mike Royko as the Tribune's signature columnist.
Sometime around Christmas in 1986, Lipinski went to lunch with investigative reporter Dean Baquet, who later went on to become national editor at The New York Times and now is the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and metro editor Jack Davis, now the publisher of the The Hartford Courant. "Someone said, 'Let's take apart the City Council,'" Lipinski recalls. "Jack said, 'What do you mean?' We said, 'Look at everything they do.'" Investigative reporter William Gaines joined the project and about ten months later "City Council: The Spoils of Power" was published with an opening sentence that Lipinski today calls "so aggressive as to be obnoxious." It also had the benefit of being true:
The Chicago City Council, the largest and most expensive in the country, is a corrupted and inefficient body that habitually puts aldermen's personal concerns before the public good.
Over the course of a week, the Tribune laid bare the ethical wasteland of the council, from committees with million-dollar budgets that rarely met to aldermen who steered repaving funds to the streets in front of their homes. Lipinski's most memorable contribution was a story about "Wild Bill" Henry, an alderman who used his office to market Soul Cola, a soft drink sold at a supermarket chain whose owners were his biggest campaign contributors. The series won the Pulitzer Prize.
After a year at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship, the most prestigious in American journalism, she returned to the Tribune to lead the investigative unit. There she began her mission to elevate the Tribune by bringing together the disciplines of feature writing and hard news reporting. "She's been a leader in that combining of ideas," says Gaines. In 1999, for example, Lipinski paired Gaines with jazz critic Howard Reich for a "historical investigation" of Jelly Roll Morton; they produced a series based on their findings that the jazz innovator was "the victim of the first great swindle in American recorded music . . . bled dry by an emerging music industry, his business associates and even those closest to him." On the Internet, the Tribune posted Morton recordings and video interviews with jazz greats. "She uses investigative techniques in a broader way instead of just [targeting] waste, fraud, and corruption in government," says Gaines.
Lipinski's ultimate success will depend a great deal upon her inner circle, a band of unusually loyal reporters and editors known as FOAMs—Friends of Ann Marie. FOAMs include Kass; literary and magazine editor Liz Taylor; architecture critic Blair Kamin and his wife, reporter Barbara Mahany; projects editor Bob Blau; and a corps of other high-ranking editors. Most are of Lipinski's generation, and many built careers together at the paper. FOAMs consistently and effusively praise Lipinski's passion, inspiration, leadership, writing flair, and news acumen. "You don't find very many editors who have that ability to inspire," says Papajohn. "She really has that spark."
Those who are not FOAMs, which means many of the rank and file, consistently portray Lipinski as insular and cold but fear the repercussions of speaking on the record. "Every Tribune reporter has a story about how they think Ann Marie hates them," one long-time Tribune reporter says.
Her newsroom friendships are so well known they have given rise to a long-running gibe that photos of her wedding party provide a more accurate portrait of Tribune power than the paper's organizational chart. And reporters palpably fear the political consequences of crossing—or even disagreeing with—a FOAM.
The loyalty she engenders may have another downside as well. "Some people are so eager to please, if Ann Marie says the moon is made of green cheese, some people would be out buying crackers," says former Tribune veteran William Recktenwald, a Lipinski admirer who now teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "That can be a weakness. But I think she's able to see that. The weakness is not with her; it's with some of the people trying to curry favor with her."
Editors are often judged more by the decisions they make at crunch time than by the way they manage on a daily basis, and every editor in the country was tested by election night 2000. At the Tribune that night, Randy Weissman, an associate managing editor, wrote a headline that, as Lipinski says, got better and better as the night went on: "As Close as It Gets." The presses were already rolling when the Tribune learned that Al Gore had called George W. Bush and conceded, and was now in a limo on his way to make a concession speech to his supporters. That was a problem. "We weren't prepared to call it because in our minds it wasn't over," Lipinski says. "But when the damn Vice-President has phoned it in, that's a different story." And a different headline. After some goading, Lipinski issued for the first time in her career that classic command of newspaper mythology: "Stop the presses!"
But instead of changing the headline, she waited, sweating out images in her mind of "all those empty porches all over Chicagoland. No blue bags anywhere." Nearly 40 minutes later, after Gore rescinded his concession, Lipinski restarted the presses full throttle. Weissman's headline held.
The Tribune's election edition was sitting on a table in her office when I visited, along with two different New York Times editions from that night, ensconced in plastic with a note from former Tribune political editor Michael Tackett, who has left for U.S. News & World Report. Tackett bought the papers on eBay for Lipinski. His handwritten note says: "Whenever you are faced with doubt remember the moment that—when it mattered most—you got it right. Best, Mike."
There is also on the table a photo of a man holding four election editions of the Sun-Times, each with a different headline. "There's only one there that got it right, you'll note," Lipinski says. She's referring to the headline "Hillary Wins." "Can you imagine?" Lipinski says. "We would never do this on a presidential election night."
In the past decade, the Tribune has struggled to find its place in a television and Internet age. Lipinski says the paper is emerging from this identity crisis with its core mission intact. The days of debating "Why should we put this on page one when it will be on all over the news tonight?" are over, she says. "For a number of years we weren't putting stories on page one that readers expected to see. But readers want to find out what the Tribune knows about it," she says. "News sells newspapers."
In another small break with recent journalistic fashion, Lipinski is not a wholehearted fan of readership studies—asking the public what kind of news it wants, and then dishing it out. She thinks such studies can be helpful, but she believes in the value of journalists' imagination. "Readers don't think, 'I wonder what the real story is of Michael Ceriale, the cop that was shot last year,' or 'I sure would like to read a series about Jelly Roll Morton,'" she says. "Readers don't ask, but we think it up and give it to them."
The Tribune's redesign is intended to deliver the news more efficiently, with the front page offering a surer hierarchy of the day's top stories and doing a better job of drawing attention to the day's surprises. But the true test of the paper's success may be whether Lipinski's energetic vision seeps through her inner circle into the entire newsroom, flowing down the editing chain and bolstering the sections and pages inside. "You want somebody who is setting a tone. That job is to be the person who lets you know what direction the paper is going, what kind of work is expected, what kind of work is rewarded," says Steve Mills, a reporter on the paper's death penalty series.
In one sense, Lipinski has already been doing that. CBS 2 Chicago reporter Mike Flannery says that, even before her promotion, "we knew she was running the paper anyway. Now the organizational chart has caught up with reality."
But it's still a new reality: The entire newsroom is finally under her dominion—and new, grander expectations are on her shoulders.