Retiring Daily Herald editor John Lampinen reflects on splendid career: 'I just wanted to do good work'

John Lampinen

It’s been the privilege of my career to work for John Lampinen. I’ve never known a more thoughtful, dedicated and down-to-earth professional or a finer gentleman.

December 31 marks his retirement after 48 years at the Daily Herald, including the last two decades as editor. Over that time he has influenced and inspired countless journalists in the Chicago area and beyond.

Lampinen, 70, was born in Waukegan and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Except for a brief time in Minnesota, he worked for the Daily Herald since he began as a reporter in 1973. He moved up the ranks at Paddock Publications before being named executive editor in 1998 and editor in 2001.

On the eve of his retirement, Lampinen reflected on his amazing run at the Daily Herald, the challenges and opportunities facing our profession and whether he still may have a future with his beloved Chicago White Sox:

Q. John, you’re one of only a handful of editors in the 150-year history of the company. What do you think our patriarch Hosea Paddock would say about his newspaper today?

A. Given the passage of time, there is probably a lot about the paper and about the community today that Hosea would not recognize. No doubt. Can you imagine how local journalism or the suburbs will look in 2171?

As much as I’m charmed by the flavor of newspapering back when Hosea rode his horse-and-buggy to the farms to drop off papers and pick up news items, I’m fascinated also to wonder about the distant future. All we know is that it will be dramatically different from our era. Artificial intelligence, the changing climate, the democratization of both news and misinformation – it all will be transformative in ways that both excite and frighten.

Q. OK, as long as you mentioned it, what will local news be like in 2171?

A. I hope there will be a place in it for local journalism and for objectivity and for the Daily Herald, in one form or another. I’m confident in the future that my lifetime will see. This paper is part of a strong company with solid leadership and sound community-minded values.

But none of us can kid ourselves. Journalism is both under attack and at a crossroads, and as you have said, Robert, it needs defenders. I’d add that it also needs courageous self-reflection. Today’s journalism still has a large share of responsible practitioners and truth-tellers, but all of us who try to meet our sacred obligations to the public are undermined by more than a small share of prominent click-baiters, infotainers, influence peddlers and out-and-out charlatans.

As to what Hosea would say? I think he would say that he’s proud that the company he bequeathed remains committed to the well-being of the community.  I think he would be pleased that all these many years later, the Daily Herald still strives each day to carry out the mission he colorfully coined “to fear God, tell the truth and make money.”

Q. When you first joined the Herald weekly newspapers as a rookie reporter in 1973, did you ever imagine you’d be running the place — or still be there 48 years later?

A. When I joined the paper, I just wanted to do a good work. I could not believe that I actually had landed in this newspapering landscape that I’d enjoyed since laying on my stomach as a boy with the Sunday comics spread out on the floor of my grandparents’ house, that I had found a spot in the same profession as Royko and Mabley, Ann Landers, Wendell Smith and Jerome Holtzman. Wow, the surreality of it, the delight of it. I had no plan. No vision of a next position or a next job.  I just wanted to do good work.

Q. Were you a natural at it?

A. Starting out, I was terribly shy and cold interviews were hard. But I was curious. And I was propelled beyond my sheepishness by the people I would meet; not just the celebrities, although that was fun, but even more by the everyday heroes who would teach you something uplifting about humanity, even in tragic situations. That has been the primary motivating force of my career, and I have been so fortunate to have been enriched in that way.

A childhood pastime of newspaper reading provided good critical thinking skills. I could anticipate the next step in a story. And I loved writing. My mother read ferociously, and I wonder sometimes if I write because she read. Whatever the case, starting out, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But I wanted to be. And I got lucky enough to stumble into a job where I had tremendous mentors from Day 1. All along the way.

Q. What about those mentors?

A. I owe so much to the people I work with and have worked with. The mentors and the colleagues and the devoted staffs. I have been blessed all these years to work for people who teach and with people who inspire, to work side by side with people of integrity and talent and self-sacrifice who blossom in front of you.

Q. Of all the newsroom roles you’ve held over the years, which did you find most challenging and most rewarding?

A. This is a hard question. It is like the proverbial question, “Which child does a parent love the most?” I have found motivating challenges in every role I’ve had. And found great rewards in each of them.

Frequently, after you’ve gone from writing to editing, people will ask, don’t you miss the writing? And yeah you do, although sometimes I think you miss more the nostalgic romance of the writing than the hard work of it. But if you love writing that much, you’ll find ways to work some of it in, and I do.

And that question begs another. If you hadn’t gone into editing, what would you have missed around the corner? Those of us who became editors – like anyone who goes into supervision in any field – never would have felt the absolute joy in watching a protégé grow unless we had. It is the most wondrous thing. People work hard and they seem stuck and they work hard and they seem stuck, and they work hard and then one day, it all clicks and suddenly they arrive. Suddenly, their promise emerges like a flower that has opened overnight. It brings tears to your eyes sometimes to see it.

All the roles have had challenges. And they’ve all had rewards. And the best rewards are the ones outside yourself.

Q. "The Last Kiss,” the poignant series you wrote about the challenges of losing a spouse, resonated with a lot of readers. Tell me about it.

A. It may sound odd since that series dealt unabashedly with death, but it became a labor of love. The concept for the series evolved from a much smaller idea, but the more I got into it, the more I longed personally for answers for my own wife and me – one of us almost certainly is going to have to deal with this, and given our ages, it’s not in a future so distant as to be unimaginable. And the more I got into it, the more also I felt I owed to the protagonist in the series and to all the many, many other grief survivors I had encountered during the research.

The death of a spouse is the most profound trauma most of us – or half of us – will suffer in our lifetimes. And it’s guaranteed to almost every couple. The loss of the soulmate. Yet it is so little talked about. We give grandma a hug at the wake and a promise to call, and then we go home to life-as-usual out of touch with the long-term suffering she will endure.

Q. Were you surprised by the response it generated? Gratified by it too?

A. I was not at all surprised by the outpouring of response. We started work on the research by soliciting – in the middle of an Opinion page editorial – personal accounts of this loss. And we were inundated with stories. Rich, poignant stories of love and loss and heartache. It was clear then that this would strike a chord. People are in pain all around us. And they responded because finally, someone heard. They wanted to be heard.

As an outgrowth of that series, Susan Anderson-Khleif writes a column on long-term grief in our Monday health coverage and she receives the most tender emails and letters. Yes, it is gratifying. We helped ease some pain. We did some good.

Q. When you were inducted into the Lincoln League of Journalists by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors you were lauded for your efforts to educate the public through the Daily Herald's Facts Matter campaign. Do you expect that to continue?

A. Facts matter. They are the most important element in a democratic republic. In order for the people to make good decisions in how we are to be governed, they must be informed decisions. So the campaign has to continue. There is no alternative but for it to continue.

We all are swimming in a sea of misinformation. Some of this misinformation is simply a failure of reckless social media to properly vet information. Some of it is simply a failure to recognize bias and vested interest. Much of it is cynical, purposeful misinformation. Particularly given the country’s deep polarization, many of us tend to be too eager to accept anything that agrees with our point of view. We accept propaganda. We accept lies. We accept manipulation.

As citizens, we have obligations to be far more educated. We are obliged to develop a healthy skepticism that trains us how and when to challenge even assertions we wish to be true.

Facts matter. Nothing less than our democratic republic is at stake. So, yes, the campaign must continue. And I am so impressed by the work Bob Oswald, our Facts Matter columnist, does each Sunday. And I’m  extremely happy that education on this topic is to be required as part of school curriculums.

Q. What’s the biggest change in the business you’ve observed over the years?

A. The big changes, of course, are one, the major cultural shifts that first took audience away from afternoon delivery and later led to relentless declines in “young readership;” two, the marked advance of women out of the old “society pages” and into the “news” rooms; three, the conglomeration of newspaper ownership and with it the disappearance of independent ownership; four, the digital revolution and all its dramatic implications; and five, now the polarizing forces that are threatening a sorry return to the days of the partisan press and away from the concepts of fairness and objectivity.

Everything has changed. Everything. When I started, we sat at manual typewriters, in noisy newsrooms with clouds of smoke hanging like billowy clouds under yellowed ceilings, and banged out triple-spaced text to allow for hand editing, carboning copies for reasons that now escape my recollection. Today, we tap quietly at keyboards that can put our words directly onto the web and onto the page.

Everything has changed. And yet, nothing has. The idea still is to try to find out what is going on, to act as a watchdog that provides a check on government and institutions, and to report as much of it as we can with speed, grace and accuracy. Everything has changed and yet nothing has.

Q. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from the pandemic?

A. That we can turn on a dime. One day, we are working out of the newsroom, business as usual. And the next, the entire newsroom – the entire company, for that matter, except for the heroes at the print center – is working from home. And through some marvel, we got that next paper out without missing a beat. And the next day’s and the next day’s and the next day’s after that.

Recognizing all along the obligations we have not only to inform our readers about the pandemic, but as a friend, to help them get through it. Many staff members suddenly taking on radically different roles – sports writers doing breaking news, photographers reporting on the struggles of local merchants. When you stop to take a breath and look back, it is awe-inspiring actually, that overnight transformation, that miracle. I am so proud of the people I work with. And so inspired by them.

Q. How has the Daily Herald managed to stay robust and healthy when so many other papers are struggling?

A. We have our struggles too, but credit our success first to the tremendous loyalty of our readers and subscribers – their support financially makes what we do possible, no ifs ands or buts; and their kindness and encouragement in emails, letters and chance encounters is endearing beyond words.

Credit also a dedicated, hard-working and adaptive staff that has endured through upheaval and is receptive to the change necessary to sustain our journalism. Credit a heritage that has handed down the obligation to public service. Credit the nimble independence of a locally owned, employee-owned media company that works together like a family. And credit company leadership that long ago recognized not just the need for diversification and change, but how urgently that change needed to take place.

Q. In your parting note to the staff, you said “we must create journalism worth paying for.” Do you see a bright digital future ahead for the Daily Herald?

A. When the digital transformation began, everyone thought people would not pay to subscribe. “The internet should be free,” people would say. I don’t know why people like that assumed journalists would be happy to come to work each day without putting food on the table or roofs over our heads; maybe they just didn’t think about whether we cared that our families would go hungry. But the resistance to paying for journalism seemed insurmountable.

And then something happened. Maybe it was Netflix. People were introduced to the idea of paying for an online product. And they got used to it. So today, people will indeed pay for digital news. It’s just a matter of providing the journalism that meets their needs and offering it with an experience that is captivating and adaptable to their lifestyles.

We’ve had encouraging success in the past two to three years growing that digital subscription base, and there’s more to come.  Yes, I see a bright digital future — one that can sustain our journalism long after I’m gone.

Q. If you hadn’t become a journalist, what would you have done? Try out for the White Sox?

A. I have stood in the batter’s box drawn outside Guaranteed Rate where Nellie Fox once stood, and I have imagined what it was like choking up on his bottle bat against the likes of Whitey Ford.

If the Sox ever have a role for an overweight, slow-footed, soft-tossing retiree who is equally adept hitting from either side of the plate, give me a cup, plenty of padding, a helmet with two flaps, and I’m their man.

(This blog operates under an agreement with the Daily Herald.)