The only strong impression Ann Marie Lipinski made on me during
the four years I spent at the Chicago Tribune came during a
newsroom-wide meeting in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.
Lipinski, who resigned as Tribune editor yesterday, took the podium to talk about accuracy. Immediately, she brought up the infamously inaccurate "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline the Trib published in 1948.
Since then, there's been a baton passed down through a succession of Tribune editors, she said. And that baton is engraved with the message: Never again.
In many ways, Lipinski's tenure at the Trib was defined by the fear instilled in that tradition. "Never again" soon became a reason to avoid reporting that was risky, or might subject the Trib to the same public scrutiny that a botched headline did 60 years ago. It became a reason to favor inaction over action.
Half an hour after planes piloted by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center, I arrived in the Trib newsroom, anxious to begin moving on a story that would require speedy reporting.
I found a crowd of reporters milling about the newsroom, waiting for instructions from their editors. The editors were in a meeting, plotting coverage. They met while the feds closed down air travel. They met some more while the train system closed down. They kept on meeting while the last available rental car left Chicago.
Only when there was virtually no chance of sending reporters from Chicago to New York did they emerge from their meeting to deploy the troops.
Government corruption was not investigated. The paper's crack investigative team ground to a virtual halt under the weight of years of muckraking that the Trib's editors failed to publish.
Ethical lapses within the paper were swept under the carpet to save the paper the embarrassment it so dreaded.
And the Trib never took the courageous, but vital, step of articulating its mission and values. What did it strive to be? The best regional paper in the Midwest? Chicago's hometown paper? New York Times lite?
In the end, the Trib under Lipinski did all of those things, and none of them particularly well.
In a different era, I'd probably applaud her departure as clearing the way for someone who could make the paper better.
But these days, the paper's owned by a real estate tycoon with no love of newspapers and even less of a plan for returning vitality to the Trib.
Given that, it doesn't much matter who's running the newsroom.