A conversation with Ann Marie Lipinski

Michigan Daily co-editors James Tobin and Ann Marie Lipinski watch the printing of the last hot type edition of the paper in the fall of 1977.

Michigan Daily co-editors James Tobin and Ann Marie Lipinski watch the printing of the last hot type edition of the paper in the fall of 1977. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Steve Kagan

 

Friday, September 18, 2015 - 1:33pm

Ann Marie Lipinski’s name doesn’t just grace the wall — it illuminates it.

Her name, sitting alongside seven others, hangs on the wall at the entrance of the Daily’s newsroom — noting her Pulitzer Prize from 1987 that she received for her work as editor of the Chicago Tribune — where she was the first female editor.

But her legacy goes beyond just that. As a co-editor of The Michigan Daily in 1977, she led a team of intrepid reporters. After her tenure at the Tribune, she became the curator of Harvard University’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism — becoming the first woman to do so.

Changing history is a trend for Lipinski, it seems. But she doesn’t let her game-changing tendencies halt her from giving back to the place that gave so much to her: The Michigan Daily.

For me, as another female editor in chief of the Daily, her legacy has had a powerful impact on me. Her story and drive are inspiring for not just women, but all Daily alumni. In honor of our 125th anniversary, I was lucky enough to talk with Lipinski about all things journalism, Daily and beyond.

LIPINSKI: The Daily has a big birthday coming up and you're about to be overrun with a lot of nostalgic alumni. I’ve thought so often about the deep impact that place had on me, how virtually all of my journalistic values were shaped by something that happened to me there. What do you think accounts for the power of the experience?

CALFAS: There’s something powerful about the experience of working at the Daily that seems to be so difficult to describe. I’ve met so many alumni who have all told me working at the Daily was the best decision they ever made. But I think the reasoning behind this can be best summed up in the words of another editor I've worked alongside with over the past few years: the Daily is addictive. Once you walk through the doors of 420 Maynard, you become enthralled by what this place has to offer. You become a different person — one who chooses to spend 50 hours (or even more...) a week inside this building, instead of going to class or partying each weekend with friends. This addiction may come from the fact that everyone in the newsroom shares it; everyone shares the drive to produce work that serves an important purpose and informs our community in a way that nothing else can. But perhaps I can’t fully understand the full power and impact of the Daily until I leave in just a few months. For you, how did your experiences at the Daily help lead you to so many successes?

LIPINSKI: The Daily made us apprentices of the adult world. That responsibility is a great gift and had a very powerful impact on me. In my first weeks as co-editor in chief, I recall a long Saturday in the newsroom debating not whether our editorial would stand for or against the execution of the infamous Gary Gilmore, but whether our opposition to the death penalty should run on the editorial page or boldly plastered across Page 1 — as if the governor of Utah or a justice of the Supreme Court would be any more likely to see it there. (…) Two decades later, while editor of the Chicago Tribune, I oversaw a multi-year examination of criminal justice issues, including an investigation of every Illinois death row case. We uncovered so many wrongs and irregularities that the governor of Illinois — who did read the Tribune — declared a moratorium on executions and then a dramatic decision to shut down death row. Our editorials about this won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s not a stretch for me to look at that work and see the shadow of college newspaper editors who lacked the full skill and influence to dismantle the nation’s capital punishment apparatus, but who were learning and honoring the promise of journalism, even if only in a dress rehearsal.

CALFAS: The amount of time I’ve spent examining potential legal issues, holding a debate over whether or not we should pursue a story, or carefully editing a 3,000-word investigative story line by line for 16 hours in the newsroom on Tuesday is much larger than I ever imagined. What’s interesting is that while we certainly do feel working at the Daily seems like a dress rehearsal, we’ve realized that what we do can have the same impact on people the way stories from a professional news source can. Several University policies have changed due to investigations and stories from the Daily during my three years here so far. Perhaps because we can have a broader audience now because of the Internet and social media. I wonder: What would have been different about your time at the Daily if stories could be easily published for a global audience then as they can be now?

LIPINSKI: I’m guessing everything except our journalistic values and the insane workdays, while maintaining, I suspect, a predominant focus on University news. I envy you having the tools you have now. I know the Daily faces the same business model challenges vexing all legacy print publications, and those are serious. I didn’t file my stories on a computer until I went off to intern at the Miami Herald the summer following my junior year, and I returned to the Daily, where we still wrote on typewriters and were just making the transition from hot to cold type. (A prized possession: the lead Daily logo we used to print the last hot type edition.) But you have a core audience on campus that can adapt to new technologies and a staff of digital natives who are fluent in the new media forms. Will there be a print paper at the next reunion? How does the Daily exploit all of the transformational digital opportunities and stay financially viable? I would love to listen in on the conversations you all have about this and know how you balance Daily values worth preserving with the need to train successful leaders and assure a relevant future for the newsroom.

CALFAS: The issue of simultaneously adapting to a changing media landscape while maintaining the strong traditions and values is one of the most important conversations happening every day in our newsroom. What’s difficult is striking a balance between honoring our past and thinking critically about our future. The most memorable changes in the Daily’s history are now movements that we honor — so why can’t we make some changes ourselves and join the innovators of the past? Something I've tried to promote during my time as editor is the willingness to try something new. As a college newspaper, we must take advantage of the unique lens we bring to campus and Ann Arbor news as students, and we have a responsibility to explore new and innovative ways to produce and promote our content. If someone has a new idea, why not try it out? If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and that's the worst thing that could happen. Whenever the topic of moving away from print comes up, we often look to the scores of bound volumes staring back at us in our newsroom. The tradition and legacy of the paper is something that carries us to where we are now, but the progress and innovation that came before us remind us that we too can leave a mark within our own newsroom. What does the value of the Daily's print publication mean for you — and, perhaps, what's the significance of its social media presence and new website design?

LIPINSKI: I'm unsentimental about the print Daily. A few years ago, the bound volume I had received commemorating my year as co-editor was destroyed in a house flood. I was sad at first, then calmly resigned when I conceded that I rarely looked at it and that my fierce attachment was to the idea of the Daily, the amazing people I learned from and the collective we built there. (…) But my real education on Maynard Street was so much more profound. I remember as a young reporter watching the senior editors (all of a year or two older than me) investigate an accusation of plagiarism, a charge that ended in their painful decision to dismiss a gifted student peer. I won’t forget the seriousness of their deliberations, and years later I leaned into my memory of their ethical stewardship when as an editor I was put in judgment of a colleague similarly charged. You can’t lose that in a flood and as a student-run teaching hospital for journalists, I think the Daily is extraordinary. (…) My own bias is to be more bold, though I think a lot of college papers are surprisingly conservative about change. You're right to ask, "Why not try it out?" and be grateful for the paper's legacy but not a slave to it.

May I change the subject? Here I am, a woman who was Daily co-editor, talking with the Daily’s presiding woman editor in chief. That’s already two more top women editors than most major news institutions have had, and you and I are but two of many women leaders in the Daily's history. We recently published a lengthy story in Nieman Reports on female leadership in journalism and found the numbers dismal. I love that our college paper defies that. Although I certainly encountered my first instances of newsroom sexism at the Daily, I’m proud of the amazing history women have made there. What do you think accounts for that given the overall industry profile?

CALFAS: When I was the managing news editor as a sophomore, I faced a host of difficulties, as I felt I had to prove my worth because I was both young for the position and a woman. Certainly, the majority of my staff did not consider these two characteristics as weaknesses, but a few did. Growing from the subtle sexism I faced in that post, I thought of how important it would be to have another female editor in chief — since it hadn't been done for five years at that point. I can’t count how many times male sources of mine have called me "sweetie" or "honey" during an interview, or encountered someone who was shocked to hear that I, indeed, was the editor in chief of the Daily. At a certain point, I would think that it's not the newsrooms that are inhibiting the growth and empowerment of female leaders, but rather the world around us. That’s a tricky issue to solve, and affects women in all career fields outside of journalism. How do you think women can empower themselves to take on these challenges?

LIPINSKI: In 2004, while I was editor of the Chicago Tribune, seven of the nation’s 25 largest papers were run by women. A decade later, that number was three. Moreover, most of the country's largest news organizations have never had a woman at the helm, making the Daily, even with the challenges you and others have regrettably faced, progressive by comparison. What I find more worrisome is that media managers of your generation are recreating the same gender and racial imbalances atop the new digital start-ups. I would have hoped for better. Given the opportunity to reinvent everything about legacy news organizations, the old management rules persist. I agree with you that there are broader forces at play, but the problem is so pernicious in journalism since you’re not likely to represent the community you cover if your newsroom is of a type. There’s content analysis suggesting an editor’s gender can have meaningful influence on what gets covered and who covers it, something I know we have both experienced.

I wish we had talked more purposefully about this when I was at the Daily. You’ve prompted me to think back on some election assignments one year that had every significant candidate going to a male reporter, while more experienced women were relegated to down-ticket races. I was angry, but kept my head down and covered my stories, commiserating only with friends. So my first advice is transparency in talking about this. Diversity discussions were less common in newsrooms then, but should be daily occurrences now on behalf of improving our coverage and expanding our audience, a path that should naturally lead to more diverse leadership, if only as a business imperative. Women and men need to redefine success, which in newsrooms historically favored beats more common to men — politics, business, foreign news — while undervaluing others. The path to leadership needs to be wider and account for the fact that the bruising demands of so-called "hard news" can be incompatible with family life during stretches of a woman's career. We, all of us, need to stop self-replicating — favoring and promoting those who remind us of ourselves, a long game that has never favored any minority journalist. And we need to find and create role models at the earliest points in women's careers. I feel fortunate that early in my Daily career we had an extraordinary co-editor in Cheryl Pilate, someone who took an interest in my work and modeled for all of us what strong leadership looked like.  

You have one semester left to your editorship, Jen, and the time will go so quickly. When others are recalling the Daily under your leadership, just as I'm recalling Cheryl, what do you hope they remember?

CALFAS: When I think back to when I joined, I can’t help but remember how much I've changed and progressed as a journalist and as a person. With such little time left, there's so much left I hope to accomplish — but so much of it is within the ideology of the newsroom as a whole. With a new website developed under my term, I hope this inspires future Daily editors and staffers to think creatively about how our content can be presented, with a digital-first goal in mind. But, more than anything, I hope I’ve served as an example or inspiration for aspiring college journalists to pursue their passions and think beyond just themselves and their individual accomplishments. Over any other goal, I've always viewed the Daily as a place where a bunch of young journalists come together and produce an informative, quality product for our audience. Working with collaborative rather than individual goals in mind is something I hope I instill in this staff and future ones as well. College journalists — including myself — can often get caught up in their own aspirations, internships and positions on the paper rather than the collective goal of the publication. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something that may inhibit the teamwork within our organization.

For all the work and passion I've put into this place, I hope others continue to sacrifice for the sake of strong, balanced and award-winning journalism.

For you, Ann Marie, your impact as an editor left a continuous mark on every staffer who has entered the newsroom since your term. What did you imagine your legacy would be while you were the editor, and what advice do you have for us at the Daily now as we move forward in this publication and beyond?

LIPINSKI: You're kind to say so, but I got so much more from the Daily than I could ever give. We’ve stood on the shoulders of generations of editors who cared deeply about the institution and did their best to leave it in better shape than they found it. But there's no denying that the Daily's greatest contribution has been as a classroom. I made a lot of mistakes there and learned from them. The Daily's culture of criticism could be harsh, as you know, and perhaps less forgiving than in a journalism school classroom since we were acutely aware that our efforts were made public. It was both thrilling and humbling to think of the history that was edited in that newsroom — coverage of Franklin Roosevelt's funeral, the Freedom Riders, the Alger Hiss trial, news of the polio vaccine. The Daily made possible a deeper engagement with the campus and the larger world, and provided the place and the people who would challenge us to do our best work. We were the lucky ones who got to do more than read the history being made around us, and that made the paper an unusual campus classroom. When Henry Butzel and Harry Jewell founded the paper they called the U. of M. Daily, they had no capital, no publisher and virtually no advertising, but they did have the commitment to more fully represent the University community than did the fraternity groups publishing the two existing journals. "We built better than we knew," they wrote of their creation some 50 years later. It’s not for me to tell future classes of journalists what building better might look like, but I hope the paper remains a classroom, a safe place for our successors to make the mistakes and discoveries that will define them.

Happy anniversary, Jen. Take care of our Daily.