Austin Kiplinger Q&A

As World War II drew to a close, W.M. Kiplinger, the founder of the Kiplinger Letter, had an idea to launch a consumer magazine designed to help American families manage their financial affairs. In 1947, his son, Austin Kiplinger, became the executive editor of Kiplinger Magazine, the first magazine devoted to personal finance. As times changed, so did the name, first to Changing Times and later to Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

The younger Kiplinger's journalistic career began with some work for the Kiplinger Washington Letter in high school. Following his graduation in 1939, Kiplinger studied economics at the Harvard Graduate School and then became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He took leave to serve as a naval aviator in the Pacific during World War II.

In 1948 he moved to Chicago to write a column for the Chicago Journal of Commerce, which was later purchased by The Wall Street Journal and turned into its Midwest edition. He became a political commentator for ABC (WBKB-TV) in 1951, when television news was in its infancy, before moving to NBC (WNBQ) in 1955. While in Chicago he hosted the first TV show on business news.

In 1956 he returned to Kiplinger Washington Editors and Changing Times. In 1961, he succeeded his father as editor-in-chief. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, now edited by Austin's son Knight, is now the longest continually published personal finance publication in the United States.

Kiplinger, who turned 90 in September, still works at the company. He talked about his career and personal finance journalism with UNC-Chapel Hill professor Chris Roush on Jan. 8, 2009. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: How much of an influence was your father on your early interest in writing as a career?

A: I literally grew up in my father’s office, almost literally. After school, I would go down, and I knew all of the staff. This was high school years and before. The first inaugural parade I saw was out of my father’s window across from the Treasury Building. I could climb out on the window ledge. It was Calvin Coolidge in 1925. I always wanted to be a journalist, although we didn’t call it that. I wanted to be a reporter and an editor. I just knew that from the very beginning.

My father was one of the first two graduates in journalism from the Ohio State University in 1912. I also considered the staff my mentors.

Q: What had gotten your father interested in personal finance?

A: It wasn’t personal finance in the original form. Our Washington Letter started in 1923. That was also the year that Time magazine started. Right after World War I, a lot of new publications came on stream. A lot of people thought my father was ridiculous. He wrote a letter in every-day language. He wrote the way people talked. It was not admired by other writers. It was a long time before his colleagues realized that he was writing a colloquial English, and it became a form of journalism. And then there was a lot of imitation.

His father, my grandfather, had been a carriage maker, and then the automobile came along, and that did away with the carriage business. So my father used to say that he became a journalist because his father had become a victim of technological unemployment. He had a pretty practical view of the things of making your life go round. He wasn’t advocating. He wasn’t writing great social issues. He was writing about how you could adapt your life to the realities and make the soundest decisions in your own interest.

We’ve always been focused on our readers. We’ve always asked what our readers need to know -- Interest rates, pensions, mortgages, and things of that nature -- not what great events are going on.

My father didn’t set out to be a business journalist. That just came, part of an evolution. Another thing that influenced him was when he came to Washington with the Associated Press, all of the top journalists wanted to be a White House correspondent or a Congressional correspondent. But no one wanted to cover the nitty gritty. And they gave him the Treasury, where he found a number of stories that affected everybody. That gave him a leg up.

He later worked as a Washington correspondent for a New York bank, writing stories internally. But then the bank decided to close its Washington office. He decided if it was useful for one bank, it might be useful for others. He developed a rationale and an understanding of how these economic issues affected people at the heart of their lives.

Q. After working for your father in high school, you worked for other publications after college. Why was that?

A: We both knew that if you were going to be a competent professional, you needed to know the field. I had worked as a junior reporter and an office boy for my father. But I went off to graduate school in Economics at Harvard and then working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. So you’re partly a product of your own planning and partly a product of circumstance.

I did work with my father to write a book called “Washington Is Like That.” It was published in 1942, and it was a best seller. The war hit during the writing, and we had to adjust some of that. We wrote about the government center and the hometown and the society of Washington. We wrote about every issue that affects the nation’s capital. It was a good book, and I still recommend it, although it’s been out of print for more than 50 years.

Q: Why did you come back to work for your father?

A: I left after three years. We got the magazine under way. I needed some outside experience. So I went to Chicago and worked for the Chicago Journal of Commerce, and then I got into broadcasting. I spent eight years in the Midwest. We did our own reporting and our own writing and our own voicing on the air. Bu then about 1956, my father was tiring and he needed help. So I came back.

Q: What was personal finance journalism like in the 1940s?

A: There wasn’t any. My father had this concept. I was the working editor for the first few years and getting it off the drawing board. It was very hard to do because people didn’t get the idea. Our staff people were traditional journalists. They didn’t get the idea of writing to somebody and giving them down to earth facts and what you should do about it. We had a tremendous amount of staff turmoil. We had top-flight people. John Denson went on to edit Newsweek. But they didn’t get the thought that we were writing practical, direct personal counsel and analysis. After three years I needed to get out.

Q: What was the initial strategy for Changing Times when it started?

A: We started as the Kiplinger magazine for a while. But my father conceived that the times are always changing and we have to adapt to them. But it implied that we were covering the news. The idea was we had a group of hundreds of thousands of readers and were reading about the problems of their business from 8 to 5, but we spend half of our lives as consumers, dealing with the mortgage, and retirement, and buying automobiles and household appliances. And there was nothing that was basically helpful in that area except for Consumer Reports. But it only focused on products and only gave you ratings. It didn’t give you any information about how to deal with these larger questions.

Q: How had that evolved when you became editor in 1961?

A: Slowly it evolved. When we were about a year into the magazine, my father sparked the idea for a piece about what a young man should do with his money, if any. That got us off into investing. And then gradually over the years we have moved more to the investing side. But initially it was buying, borrowing, planning and saving, the whole orbit of what you have to do as a family.

When I was president of the organization, I didn’t do the hands-on editing. I was just editor in chief. We didn’t make any sharp changes. If you have to make sharp changes, it shows you haven’t been making sharp changes along the way. We don’t make these revolutionary changes. If we’re alert, we make just gradual changes. Our letter is still four pages. We changed from starting the letter with “Dear Sir” to “Dear Client” a long time ago. But the changes have been very gradual.

Q: The publication had the personal finance category to itself before Money started. What was it like to have competition, and did you change anything at the time?

A: No. Actually, Money magazine was struggling very seriously, and they were about to kill it several times.

Q: Why did personal finance journalism become increasingly popular in the 1970s and 1980s?

A: What happened was people became more sophisticated about economic affairs and became invested in a long-term pension plan. They became personally more hands on. I attribute the growth in the personal finance field to the changes in family life. Most people didn’t have pensions when we started. There was no such thing as company-provided health insurance. And then we had the democratization of the stock market.

It was a growing in education in people in matters of economic survival and personal management. It comes along with a growth in education. When I went to college in the mid 1930s only about 8 percent of the population were graduates. Today it’s well over 50 percent.

Q: How did you get your sons interested in the publication?

A: Knight went through Cornell as I did, and then he went into the international economics program at Princeton. He decided he wanted to get into reporting, and he got a job at the Montgomery County Sentinel, right here in the DC area. And then he worked for another paper. And then he helped me writing a book. And then he went to work for the Ottaway papers. That was invaluable for him. So he did the same thing I did. He got his experience outside and came back with a good solid base in journalism. I believe in that.

Todd did the same thing, but he came in earlier. He was in editorial, sales and personnel. He ended up watching over investments.

Q: What issues -- good or bad -- do you see today with personal finance journalism?

A: I think we’re in the same boat with the whole information world. It’s not a sea change, it’s a tsunami. We are struggling to keep our heads above water in the financial sense. We’ve been in the red of the publishing area of our company for the past five years and lived on reserves. Thank God we’ve been frugal.

The publishing world is not just in turmoil, it’s in a long-term permanent change. We have our dot com and our business resource center. They’re growing by leaps and bounds, but it’s a long haul, and we have a lot of publishing costs that they can’t cover overnight. So it’s a race. I don’t know who’s going to survive in this picture. We’re doing everything that we’ve ever done as best as we have ever done. But we have to make a transition to new distribution.

Bloggers, some of them are high quality, and some of them are playing games. We hope our reputation, built over 80 years, will help distinguish the solid, genuine stuff from the imitations, but you have to keep working at it.

Q: How do you think personal finance journalism will change in the future?

A: It’s where people live and the things people have to have. We think of the press and journalism in forms as we have known it. But the information is vital, and the applications are going to be there. But how it’s going to be delivered is the question and in what form. And I don’t have the answer. I do think it has to be electronic in some form or another, whether it’s from a Blackberry or the Web, or the bug in your ear.

Q: Do you think that the Kiplinger family would ever sell?

A: I would hope not. It’s not necessarily because of the family, but it’s because of the independence. I would hope it would continue as an independent entity, somebody who takes personal responsibility for its integrity. In larger and large companies, that doesn’t always survive. I just hope we can keep that quality in whatever form. I know Knight agrees with this. We’ve had a lot of discussions about this recently.