Ann Marie Lipinski to Young Journalists: “Democracy Needs You More Than Ever”

Ann Marie Lipinski has been a leading figure in journalism since the late 1980s, when she and her reporting team at the Chicago Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a weeklong series on corruption in Chicago’s city council. Lipinski served as the editor of the Chicago Tribune from 1995 to 2008. After stepping down, Lipinski became the vice president of civic engagement at the University of Chicago while also serving on the advisory board of the Chicago News Cooperative, a non-profit organization that published articles for the New York Times. In 2011, Lipinski was named the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Following an Institute of Politics event called “American in the Trump Era: Covering Trump,” Lipinski spoke with the Gate’s Alex Price to discuss the challenges facing journalists under the new presidential administration.

The Gate: Much of your defining work as a journalist has been in the field of investigative journalism. In your view, what is the role of investigative journalism in our society?

Ann Marie Lipinski: Wow. I have to back up and talk about journalism as a fundamental kind of core value in a democracy. And within journalism, investigative work is essential. The people who do that kind of rigorous, focused digging, who commit the time and resources to that kind of reporting, are just so essential, maybe now more than ever. Some stories are just made for social media, or they’re made for television; they’re obvious and they’re prevalent. The work that investigative reporters do is often more in the shadows. And it’s around stories that aren’t going to just jump up and make themselves known. You need a really dogged, rigorous reporter to dig them out.

Gate: As a journalist who has spent most of your career in print media, what do you think is the current role of print media and where do you think it’s going as we move into the future? What are the strengths of print as opposed to online or television?

Lipinski: I worked at the Chicago Tribune for virtually my entire reporting career, and my reporting years were in print. When I was editing, though, which came after my reporting years, we were in that transition from print to online, and [we were] doing both [of those] along with television and radio. There was a cable news station which sat right in my newsroom. And I became, pretty early on, very agnostic about the forms of expression. I think that one medium has virtues that another does not, but also can have drawbacks or restrictions that another medium does not. Those virtues and restrictions were things that I thought about in terms of how you express a particular story, but I thought that it was really exciting to play in those different formats and to find your voice in each of them, and to mold your storytelling to fit different formats. Now, it’s not an optionit’s a requirement for the way journalists need to do their work. I don’t think you can be singular in the way you think about sharing your stories. You have to be, if not proficient in each of those forms, at least somewhat experienced in multiple forms and willing to tell your stories across them.

Gate: How would you describe the role of social media in the current political atmosphere? What do you think it is accomplishing successfully, and what do you think could be improved in the realm of social media?

Lipinski: So, is that a trick question? [Laughs] Social media has become a very significant means of expression, and not just for journalists, but also for newsmakers. So it’s unavoidable … that social media has a definite role in the way journalists need to communicate, not just in telling things, but in learning things. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are all also sources of information, not just places to disseminate news and information. The best reporters are using those as reporting tools, not just storytelling tools. Again, there are limitations to the value of it, and I also think that is because it’s relatively new compared to other forms of media. Some people are really good at Twitter, some people are really good at Facebook, but not everybody is. Learning what your strengths are and learning how to exploit the strengths and downplay the weaknesses of certain forms of media, I think, is something that we’re struggling with in the social sphere.

Gate: Shifting the tone back to investigative journalism, you once referred to the Chicago Tribune as “one of our community’s leading citizens.” What exactly did you mean by that, and do you think it’s still true today, either about the Tribune or the media in general?

Lipinski: Thanks for asking me that, because I haven’t thought about that in a long time. But when I was editor of the paper, I felt so strongly about that. I used to say to my newsroom that they should think of themselves as working for Chicago’s leading citizen. I didn’t say that so much publicly because I know it could’ve had an arrogant sound to it, but that’s not how I meant it. The way I meant it was that we ought to wake up every day and go to work as if that was our responsibility. And it was. Each of us individually, as well as the newsroom collectively, and our colleagues throughout the newspaper even outside the newsroom had a responsibility to really be working and acting on behalf of this incredible city and beyond. And if you really believe that, I think the way you think about your work shifts a little bit because you really understand that you’re working on behalf of a community. You’re not just talking to it, you’re working with it, and you’re working for it and on behalf of it. It animated my editorship, and really shifted, maybe in some subtle ways, but for me philosophically in a very fundamental way, how I personally went about my work and how I wanted the newsroom to go about its work.

Gate: What should the media response be to President Trump’s claims that certain media outlets are fake news, or that they will “suffer the consequences” of publishing certain things, especially in that context of investigate journalism? Where do we go from here, given the kind of sentiment that has surfaced in Trump’s rhetoric regarding media?

Lipinski: So we’re at week one of a new presidency, and I think there has been a lot of emotion and a lot of animated discussion, and I am feeling the need as a journalist for us to calm down. I absolutely understand the emotional response to someone saying to us, and in some cases to journalists individually, “You’re a hack, what you do is not worthy, you manufacture news.” It’s hard not to have a defensive response to that because we feel so deeply about the work that we do. And it’s always difficult to be personally disparaged. But I think it behooves us, to the extent that we can, not to take this personally. And to understand that this is politics, and that we are being made an enemy, and that’s not new to journalism. Elected officials have done that all over the world to journalists for a very long time. And I think our response needs to be to double down on our work. And to reclaim our core and fundamental values of accuracy and fairness and perseverance and doggedness and working on behalf of the public, and not make this a story of our being aggrieved.

Gate: Finally, what advice do you have for current students of journalism and aspiring young journalists moving forward?

Lipinski: Well, I was so glad to hear you say that you’re thinking about going into journalism because honestly, I was just thinking today, oh my gosh, what if one of the results of this really tense period is that young people who aspire to a career in journalism say, “You know what, this isn’t worth it, I have a headache. Why don’t I go and do something where I’ll be valued?” And I could understand that response, but it would break my heart. So I would say to young journalists or would-be potential journalists that the work is so worth doing. And if you feel that calling, you almost can’t turn it off. If it’s easily turned off, maybe it’s not for you and you might want to reconsider. But if you feel that really strong desire, and it’s almost irresistible, that you want to be part of this amazing coalition of people who are working on behalf of the public and whose job and calling is to find things out and share them widely, then it is more worth doing now than ever. And it’s not going to be easy, and the pay may not be great, and the hours are really awful, but the sense of satisfaction that you’ll feel will make it worthwhile. And that the democracy needs you more than ever. So thank you for still being interested in doing this, and tell your fellow students it’s still a calling worth answering.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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