Austin Kiplinger, a journalist and businessman who helped pioneer personal finance journalism and founded the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, has died. He was 97.
Together with his father, W. M. Kiplinger, he launched the magazine now called Kiplinger Personal Finance, which since 1947 has helped translate for everyday people the particulars of mortgage loans, insurance policies and wise investment.
He founded the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State University in 1974 to honor his father’s legacy.
“Through his generosity and vision, Austin Kiplinger and his family have helped thousands of journalists sharpen their skills to improve their reporting,” Kiplinger Program director Doug Haddix said. “His legacy llves on through reporters, editors and producers all across the country who have benefited from Kiplinger Program training. He will be deeply missed.”
A self-described “newspaperman,” Kiplinger worked at Kiplinger Washington Editors well into his 90s, hammering away each day on his Underwood typewriter at the 13th Street office.
“I’m the only one around this office who can still use a typewriter, by the way,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “I can go about as fast as anybody can on a keyboard.”
Poised and astute, he never floundered for a word, even in his later years. He was a prodigious writer — 11 books on Amazon were written or coauthored by him — mostly about finance and Washington history. The last, a follow-up memoir of the second part of his life, Letter from Washington Part II, was published when he was 95.
He felt as comfortable on a horse as he did behind a typewriter; he and his wife, Mary “Gogo” Kiplinger, thrilled at steeplechase and hosting Thanksgiving foxhunts. (Though they didn’t hunt to kill, said son Knight, but to throw a big party afterward.)
Kiplinger was immersed in journalism as young as 5. The child of divorced parents, he was a regular visitor in the Washington, D.C., newsroom where his father produced the prestigious Kiplinger Letter, which forecast economic trends starting in1923.
“His staff came to be kind of part of the family,” Kiplinger said during a 2010 podcast for the Holleman Companies. “You know, reporters, journalists, writers, they tend to blend their lives; their personal and professional lives all come together. I knew every one of those men, and every one of them was kind of a surrogate big brother or father or cousin to me.”
At 6 he wriggled out the office’s second-story window over 15th Avenue, perching himself on a theater marquee to better see Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural parade pass below. Company reporters helped him write his high school civics papers, and in 1935 he was hired as an office boy to sharpen pencils and run errands.
His father once tried to convince him that being a journalist was boring business. In 1932, Hitler was on a tear in Germany and the world was in financial collapse. W.M. Kiplinger sailed to Europe to gauge the situation, taking along his 14-year-old son.
They traveled to Hamburg and Paris, and saw the Reichstag in Berlin just after a violent demonstration. Then they slogged to London and stopped in the Associated Press office — a lackluster place by the elder Kiplinger’s account. Teletype tickers thrummed throughout the newsroom; young Austin was spellbound.
“They were coming in from all over the world, from Singapore, from Tokyo, from Buenos Aires . . . . from Rome. I thought that was the most exciting thing I had ever heard in my life. He thought he was discouraging me. It had the opposite effect.”
Though he edited everything he could get his hands on — two high school newspapers and later Areopagus magazine at Cornell — he never took a single journalism course. (Cornell didn’t offer them.)
“But that’s a little misleading because if you grew up in a journalistic office, you get more than a course in journalism,” he said.
In college he was a stringer for the AP and a correspondent for the Ithaca Times, before studying graduate economics at Harvard in 1939. But the lure of newspapers was too great, so he struck west to look for a reporting job. Nearly broke, he landed a position at the San Francisco Chronicle. He reveled in it.
Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Soon he was piloting Navy torpedo planes off of carriers in the Pacific. His father began penning him letters, describing his latest conceptualization: a post-war magazine that would help families budget their dollars smartly.
“All through the war, the staff of the Kiplinger Washington Letter worked six- and seven-day weeks focusing on the big questions and world-shaking matters of the economy and government,” Austin Kiplinger said in an interview for Kiplinger Personal Finance in 1997. “I think W. M. Kiplinger hankered for something that was more personal and directly aimed at individuals.”
”Nobody dealt with the whole picture of family budgets, investing, saving and all of the things that people do to support themselves,” he later said.
After the war, father and son launched the magazine together, to wild success. They worked well together on questions of editorial content. But the two had totally different ideas about managing a newsroom. Austin wanted consensus from his editors. His father did not.
“I told him one day that I was going to leave,” he recalled in the Holleman podcast. “It was a very emotional thing for us both. But I knew that I couldn’t stay and learn all the things that I would need to know and become the kind of self-reliant, self-generating editor and manager that I needed to be if I stayed in this office.”
He relocated his young family to Chicago, and began writing a front-page column for the Chicago Journal of Commerce. In the early ’50s, the Chicago National Bank approached him about doing a 6 p.m. newscast — for television. He flourished in the new medium.
“It was quite a venture at the time,” he later recalled.
In 1952 he was broadcasting for ABC, covering national political conventions with giants such as John Daly, Pauline Frederick and Martin Agronsky. And the news magazine format that made 60 Minutes famous? Kiplinger pioneered that at NBC’s WNBQ with his show “Impact.” Newsweek called him “the cool young voice.”
NBC courted him to come to New York. His father needed him in Washington. So after eight years in Chicago, he came back to Kiplinger Washington Editors and became executive vice president — next in line. He described the following years as the most “strenuous and intense” of his father’s and his lives.
“There were times when I would go home at night and just be just wrung out,” he said. “It was mainly because I knew that he didn’t want to give this up to anybody else. This was a creation. It came out of himself.”
For his father, he said, “it was like turning over a child and having somebody else raise him.”
Austin became executive editor in 1961 and remained so until 1992, when he turned the reins over to his son, Knight. That transition was smooth.
Much of his writing for the Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger Personal Finance (called Changing Times until 1991) now seems prescient. A December 1963 letter foresaw “TV on wall screens” and people who would “telephone anyone, anywhere by a gadget carried in your pocket.” (He also said a boy in 1963 would live until 2020 or 2030. Who knew, 52 years hence, he’d nearly hit the mark himself?)
He predicted robust growth in the 1990s, but continued poverty and educational disparity beyond 2000. His columns touted prudent spending only after investing in the future.
Part of that investment, as he saw it, was supporting journalists who would one day steer public policy and keep the democracy sound. Through his endowment to the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State, more than 1,800 journalists received training last year alone.
Kevin Smith, deputy director of the Kiplinger Program, was honored to sit next to Kiplinger at his 90th birthday party at the National Press Club in Washington in 2008.
“What really impressed me was that he gave so much of his time to some college students who were in attendance,” Smith said, “making them feel like they were the most important people in the room that evening. Here was a man with a very distinguished career and a distinguished member of the Washington scene, yet he didn’t act like he deserved any of that.
“He spent most of his time talking up other people at a party in his honor. I think that shows the true character of Mr. Kiplinger.”