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The [Tuesday] Papers

The departure of Ann Marie Lipinski as editor of the Chicago Tribune is not a surprise. She's about as diametrically opposite of Sam Zell and his clownish deputies as one could be.

The promotion of Gerry Kern to replace her is a surprise. Howard Kurtz gets it right when he reports that "Journalists who have dealt with Kern call him a solid but unremarkable editor who was shuffled to the corporate side after losing internal competitions and spearheaded the idea of measuring the productivity of Tribune papers and their staffs."

The smart money was on Jim Warren as Lipinski's replacement, especially once his chief rival for the post, George de Lama, left the paper in May. Former Tribbie Tim Franklin, now the editor of the Baltimore Sun, has long been considered the dark horse in the sweepstakes. But Gerry Kern?

Not really on the newsroom's radar.

Kern became the paper's metropolitan editor in 1993 when I was a reporting resident at the paper and actually won over a fair number of reporters initially put off by his suburban pedigree by injecting some energy into the city desk and shaking things up by moving some pieces around, including a couple of noted FOAM's - Friends of Ann Marie. If memory serves, Ann Marie was on maternity leave at the time.

Ultimately, though, as Kurtz notes, Kern was widely perceived to have lost the paper's Kremlinesque interoffice political wars.

It's fortuitous now that he spent his years in the wilderness compiling byline counts, brow-beating the company's far-flung papers into using each other's content, and smushing together the various Tribune properties' Washington bureaus into one. Turns out that's exactly the kind of economizing and bottom-lining that Zell wants more of, despite his initial pledge to grow the company's papers rather than shred them.

For sure you won't be seeing the same old Tribune when Zell's version comes out in the fall. The change, in fact, looks to be jarring.

In some folks' hands, this would be just what the paper needs. Somehow I'm not convinced, though, that those hands belong to Zell and now Kern (not that those hands belonged to Warren, either, believe me.) The goal right now is debt reduction. And reduction is just what you're going to get.

The real question will be whether Kern can save the Tribune after he destroys it. In other words, does he get the Internet?

Ann Marie's World
Kurtz writes that Lipinski is "widely-admired" in the newsroom, but I've found that she is at least equally widely-feared, if not more. From a profile I wrote of her in Chicago magazine after she was named editor:

"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.'"

Side Orders
I always thought that if I had to do it over again, I might have led that profile with the story Ann Marie told me about watching a focus group from behind one-way glass. The group had been asked to identify certain characteristics of the Tribune, and one of them was that the paper was "male."

Afterwards, Ann Marie told me, she made a point of introducing herself to the focus group members to show that the editor of the paper was a woman. She wanted to prove them wrong instead of trying to understand why they saw the paper as they did.

My other favorite Ann Marie anecdote happened during a phone interview when I asked her about former Trib sportswriter Skip Bayless's claim that she had ordered the sports editors to stop starting columns on the sports front and jumping them to inside the section. Columns, she decreed, should start and stop on the left hand side of a page only, instead of sometimes starting in the middle, top or bottom of a page and continuing elsewhere.

"A column," she instructed me, "means one column of type."

In other words, a newspaper column is actually named after a column of newsprint, and therefore shouldn't stray.

What a tight ass, I thought.

Diminished Era
Ann Marie is no doubt talented, if fastidious. But she was not a change agent at a time when change was desperately needed. She presided over a reduction of the paper's features and personalities without any corresponding innovation. When she took over the paper, it was probably as good as it had ever been. You could hardly say that now.

Of course, you could say that about almost any paper in the country - it's obviously not all her fault.

But in just one example of failed leadership, the Tribune had an early advantage online thanks to early-adopter Charlie Brumback (he owned one of the first Apples); he was an early investor in AOL when nobody knew what AOL was and Trib experimented early and often on the Internet. The newsroom was never brought along, though, and now its website is as - like many in the industry - a mediocre mess.

The investigative and narrative projects she spearheaded as managing editor also lost their steam under her editorship - which isn't to say there weren't some beauties. It's to say that the paper (again, like almost all of them) is hardly what it once was, not that it was ever as great as she imagines.

And I suspect it's about to become even less great.

*

I'll weigh in on the New Yorker cover flap and the politics of the day over at Division Street.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Cash is king.




Posted on July 15, 2008


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BOOKS - America, We Need To Talk.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Beachwood Photo Booth: Wyoming, Michigan.


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