Some reporters settle into their ideal career after many years of job hopping and soul searching. Then there are those who seem destined for journalism from the first time they touch a typewriter. Austin Kiplinger, editor emeritus of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, is the latter.
The son of one of the earliest members of the Sigma Delta Chi fraternity, the predecessor of SPJ, Kiplinger says there was never any question in his mind that he would be a journalist. There was no pressure from his father, who founded the Kiplinger Washington Letter in 1923. Rather, Austin Kiplinger simply grew up in his father’s office and never questioned his own desire to become a journalist.
Now, at age 93, he has never wondered what it would be like if he had chosen a different path. Having fulfilled an interest in aviation by flying for the Navy in World War II, Kiplinger returned to civilian life and a budding journalism career that would last well over half a century. He believes absolutely in a statement his father made years ago that “a good reporter is the noblest work of God.”
Over the years, Kiplinger has worked in print, television and online news. After college he moved to California to work for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent two years after the war at Kiplinger’s, co-founding The Kiplinger Magazine (now Kiplinger’s Personal Finance) in 1947. In 1948 he moved to Chicago to report for the Chicago Journal of Commerce and later as a political commentator for ABC. He moved back to Kiplinger’s in 1956 and became editor-in-chief in 1961. SPJ named him a Fellow of the Society, given for extraordinary contributions to journalism, in 2009.
In 1912, Quill’s first year of publication, Austin’s father, W.M. Kiplinger, graduated from The Ohio State University and had joined Sigma Delta Chi. Today, Austin Kiplinger holds the record for the longest SPJ membership, having joined in 1936 while a student at Cornell.
One memory Kiplinger shared from his days in Sigma Delta Chi at Cornell is about the chapter treasurer who failed college and was asked by the faculty to leave. The treasurer took all the chapter’s records with him. Members he left behind had to come up with an induction ceremony for new members on the spot.
Like his father, Kiplinger has been a lifelong member of SPJ. Both father and son were so busy in their careers that they could give little time to being “a good member,” but “he was doing the work and demonstrating the various principles that we all subscribe to,” Kiplinger said about his father.
“If you practice the ideals, I think you’re doing the work at its best level,” he said.
With little time to participate actively in SPJ, it might seem odd to maintain membership for so many years. Kiplinger sees his membership as an act of support for the work SPJ accomplishes.
“People are getting confused at how we transmit things, but that’s not the goal of our profession. It’s the reporting of news and the interpreting of news,” he said. “It can come to you in any form, but however it comes, the important element is the quality of the report itself — and that’s where SPJ comes in.”
Stressing that the job of journalists is to get the news right and deliver it succinctly, he also emphasizes the importance of fundamental education for developing an informed public. Fierce advocates for the power of education, the Kiplingers have been influential beyond journalism. Austin and W.M. Kiplinger founded the Washington Journalism Center and the Public Affairs Reporting program at Ohio State. Often labeled a philanthropist by others, the veteran editor and executive almost shivers at the mention of it.
“I don’t like the word ‘philanthropy.’ It implies that it’s something separate from your life.” He believes simply that to whom much is given, much is expected. His belief that jobs are created by people taking responsibility and working together, not solely by government programs, might help explain the Kiplinger family’s long commitment to charitable giving.
“I think of it more as a family tradition,” Kiplinger clarified. “Neighborliness and friendliness were just part of the tradition. I think of it as enlightened self-interest. You have to help create your neighborhood and country. Who else is going to do it?”