Ann Marie Lipinski picked an odd time to quit her job as editor of the Chicago Tribune. Wheels were in motion — she’d just launched a crash project to redesign and shrink the physical paper and also shrink its staff. Committees were meeting for hours a day about the first and editors were working out guidelines for the second. Now what? Has all that work been wasted? Gerould Kern, who takes over Friday, surely has his own ideas about how to cut, and onlookers who applaud Lipinski’s news values must fear that Kern’s ideas won’t be as good. (He was, apparently, the guy in corporate who came up with the daffy idea of counting bylines to judge the value of staff.)

I’ve just been listening to someone inside the Tribune who’s trying to think it through. (This person’s years and experience add up to a perspective I’ve learned to respect and trust.) Lipinski had been editor seven years already, and Sam Zell and his cowboys were obviously not her style; if she thought of herself as a short-timer why put herself through the agony of deciding who stays and who goes? Yes, but who knows better than she does who’s dispensable and who isn’t, and who better to defend the Tribune‘s highest values than someone who’s spent a career serving them?

Lipinski came back from a week’s vacation in Korea with her husband and daughter with her head clear and her mind made up. It was time. She told her bosses last week, her top editors Sunday night, and her staff Monday. She works through Thursday and the farewell party’s that evening at the Billy Goat.

But why did she take a vacation in the first place, while everyone around her was working overtime trying to reinvent the paper? This strikes my interlocutor as oddly insensitive. Lipinski had her friends at the Tribune, the celebrated Friends of Ann Marie — or FOAMs — but otherwise, this person says, she was not an impassioning leader. In recent months she’d been no Henry V — or John Carroll or Dean Baquet, fallen leaders at the LA Times remembered for rallying the troops against the barbarians.

Of course, she’s entitled to her own style. And those paladins in Los Angeles could make a strong case that they were right and the bean-counting bosses back in the Tribune Tower were wrong. But now Sam Zell and his crowd have swept those bean counters aside, and it’s a lot easier to say the new crowd’s arrogant and boorish than to say it’s wrong. Plenty of staffers in the Tribune newsroom who’d lay down their lives for the traditional news values Lipinski represents think of Zell, nevertheless, as the paper’s only hope of staying afloat.

So what was Lipinski supposed to rally the troops against? Well, against their deepening foreboding, the fear that things can only get worse. And inspiration wasn’t her style. Which may be why the newsroom seemed oddly unemotional, I was told, after Lipinski made her announcement, even if the staff universally felt regret. Fearing the Goths in the hearth, it appears they’ll miss what she stood for more than they’ll miss her. 

As for Kern, he lost a battle for managing editor to Jim O’Shea after Lipinski moved up to editor, and thereafter moved out of the newsroom and up to corporate. There are surely editorial staffers hired in the past five years or so who have never heard of him. But out of editorial’s eyes, he was in Zell’s. It’s curious the bosses could settle on  him so quickly — they didn’t even make him acting editor while they conducted a more careful search. Maybe Lipinski’s resignation wasn’t such a surprise.

I called William Gaines this morning and asked for his thoughts. A longtime Tribune investigative reporter, Gaines later taught journalism at the University of Illinois before retiring a year ago and moving back to Munster, Indiana. The Tribune‘s months-long investigation of City Council corruption in 1987 earned Gaines his second Pulitzer. He shared the award with two other Tribune reporters, Ann Marie Lipinski and Dean Baquet.

Baquet wound up at the LA Times. He became editor in 2005 when John Carroll, his predecessor, quit to protest staff cuts demanded of him, and the next year Baquet refused to make more cuts and was fired. (The publisher who fired him, David Hiller, fell out of favor with Zell and the other new bosses in Chicago and resigned Monday. That development was completely overshadowed here by Lipinski’s resignation.)

Gaines was full of praise for Lipinski. He said she’d expanded the horizons of investigative reporting at the Tribune, which “had been predictable — nursing homes, City Hall.” In 1998, when she was the managing editor, she actually teamed him with jazz writer Howard Reich, who’d come across some old letters by Jelly Roll Morton complaining that he’d been cheated out of royalties by his publisher. Gaines did the digging and proved it was true. His series with Reich turned into a book.

Thinking about 1988 reminded Gaines of Ellen Soeteber, who was the Pulitzer-winning team’s metro editor. Soeteber later moved on to become editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  That paper was sold in 2005, and the new owners decided to cut the staff. So Soeteber quit.

And Gaines remembered Jim O’Shea. He was Lipinski’s deputy ME at the time of the Jelly Roll Morton project, and he and Gaines worked on several stories together. “It’s a passing era, I think,” Gaines reflected. “Over the years we had a certain type of journalism I don’t think anybody else was able to match. It seemed like we could take on any challenge.”

O’Shea was the Tribune‘s managing editor when the Tower sent him to LA to replace Baquet. Coldly greeted at first, O’Shea wound up resigning early this year after fighting with Hiller over staff cuts. 

And now we have Lipinski’s inscrutable resignation. 

Are there enough swords to supply all the editors falling on them? Are we seeing the birth of a proud new tradition?