Q&A: CQS Co-founder John C. Quinn


by Ashley Marchand (CQS ‘10)

One day in late January 2010, I sat talking with John C. Quinn in his office at the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute at the John Seigenthaler Center in Nashville. It was cold outside, but inside, the atmosphere was made warm by the measured voice of the man who, with his late wife Loie, founded the Chips Quinn Scholars program after their son John C. “Chips” Quinn Jr. died in a 1990 car accident. Chips, 34, had been managing editor of the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal at the time of his death.

John Quinn and I concluded our interview two months later in my internship city, Washington, D.C., during a dinner with several other Chips Quinn Scholars and Program Director Karen Catone. Here are his stories and insights.

Q: Tell me again how the Chips Quinn Scholars program got started.

A: In Poughkeepsie Chips had inherited an all-white newsroom in a community with diverse readers and diverse news needs. The newsroom was mostly male, two women. One problem he faced was finding a network of diverse young journalists. So he and I worked together. He managed to bring some diversity into the staff. When the community was rocked by a major racial conflict, he took the lead effort in trying to have the newspaper report everybody’s say, give everybody’s perspective. Out of that, a very dangerous community explosion was diffused. He was given posthumously the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medals Award for responsible community leadership.

The morning after the tragedy, Loie and I wanted to think of something for Chips’ memorial. We sat on the porch watching the sun come up and we came to the same conclusion: What can we do to help his search for a network of young journalists who bring diversity to the prospective news company?

Q: Do any moments stand out that define why you started this program?

A: In the class of 1994, a young African-American from the West attended orientation in Washington, D.C. He was a junior in college, working on the student newspaper. The second night of the program, he sat next to Loie. She asked him why he was interested in journalism. He said he got interested in college, but also still loved playing music. He was torn between where he wanted to spend his life. She had a good visit with him. That night at home she said, “We’ve got to keep him in journalism.” I don’t know whether it was because of us or not, but he finished college and went to his hometown newspaper where he interned. Now he’s the top editor, running the paper. That’s the kind of effort we’re all looking for.

Q: Are the Scholars like a family that just keeps expanding?

A: Yes. If we can instill a sense of familial friendship that will encourage them, comfort them in bad times, applaud them in good times, then they will know they have someone (and) never walk alone.

Q: How did you get into the newspaper business?

A: I was the oldest male in the family. Circumstances said I had to get a job. I was 17 and on my way to a great career as a racetrack bookie. It just happened that the spring break at Providence College matched the spring meet at the racetrack. Ten of us were sent out by the good Father Gallagher to the racetrack for 10 days of jobs at $10 a day. That was a lot of money in 1943. My nine classmates were hired and I was not. Those days, I walked with a cane. I was pretty depressed and desperate.

On my way home, I stopped to see my former high school counselor. I said, “I need a job where I can go to school during the day and work at night.” She called a contact at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin and sent me down for an interview. A wonderful gentleman at the paper who became a great friend of mine sent me to the newsroom to talk to the editors.

When I got home from the interview, my mother said, “Call the Journal back.” Somebody – a copy boy – had been called up by the military and the paper needed somebody starting Sunday night. On Easter Sunday night, 1943, I started as a copy boy.

My grandmother thought it was terrible because, besides the fact that I wasn’t going to become a priest, a) anybody who worked at night couldn’t have a very respectable job, and b) anyone who worked on a Sunday night probably skipped going to Mass, and c) anyone who worked at night on an Easter Sunday was going to go straight to hell. I stayed at the paper for 23 years.

Q: What was it like in the early days of USA Today?

A: At USA Today, we didn’t want the big-timers. We wanted the young people who were writing for papers across the country. We found temporary housing for these young people. The deal was that they would stay for six months, and if USA Today survived, the y would be invited to stay. If it failed, we guaranteed them another job. It was a rough life.

Q: What was the approach to covering news?

A: The whole trick of USA Today was to have the news presentation on page one be forward-looking. We didn’t emphasize what happened yesterday. We were looking at what’s next. So our reporters, at the end of a presidential press conference, would write about the conference. But their main story would be about what did it mean tomorrow. That was the great challenge and satisfaction of editing USA Today.

John C. Quinn and Ashley Marchand (Photo by Rhina Guidos, CQS 2000).

Q: What’s the most fun you’ve had covering a story?

A: There was a bad tenement fire in a residential area of Providence. A young woman and her two kids had been driven out of their apartment. The morning paper had the straight fire story. The day city editor said, “There’s gotta be a better story about this family driven to the street in the middle of the night. See what you can get.” I wrote a story that was stripped across page one. My lead was “Tommy Smith didn’t go to school today.” Next paragraph: “Last night, his family, mother and siblings, were driven out on the street by the fire and he forgot to bring his shoes.” He stayed home because he had no shoes.

The publisher said, “Give Quinn an expense account and tell him to go buy that kid shoes.” That was great, and I did. Fun stories for me are the ones that achieve something. Getting a scoop is fine and is part of a career, but the real satisfaction comes from doing something for the readers or for the people in my story.

Q: Toughest story to cover?

A: I was assigned to cover the problems with the new owners of the New Haven Railroad in Providence. I rode trains, Providence into Boston and New York, talked to passengers, waiters, conductors, even the maintenance department. It was a tough story to write because the railroad president was a nice guy and he meant well. I wrote a five-part series.

Ten days later, that man resigned. The night managing editor called me and said, “You gotta come down here and write this story.” I started to write the story and froze. The editor said, “Look kid, the clock is ticking. I’ve gotta have this story. I’ve gotta have a lead.” I said, “I don’t know where to start.” He said, “What’s the key point that comes into your mind right now that you would say to your friend at a bar?” I said, “Well, I’d say that he was a great financier, but he couldn’t run a railroad.” He said, “You dumb son of a b—-. That’s the lead.”

Q: What would you say to young journalists who love the field but may be discouraged by the tumultuous state of newspapers?

A: Stay the course. Newspapers may be cutting back, adjusting, but journalism is here to stay. I will say that I’m glad I did my newspaper career when I did.


Ashley Marchand is a staff writer for the Advisory Board Company in Washington, D.C. She was a Spring 2010 Chips Quinn Scholar for The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. A Spanish and mass communications graduate of Houston Baptist University, Marchand was assistant religion editor, assistant managing editor, editor in chief and student adviser for The Collegian, her school newspaper. She was an intern/stringer for the southwest bureau of The New York Times (summer 2008). Marchand taught journalism to students as part of an after-school program at Sharpstown Middle School in Houston (spring 2009). She was inducted as a member into Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership honor society, and became vice president of Alpha Mu Gamma, a foreign language honor society.

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2 Comments

  1. Karen F.
    08.06.10

    Great interview of such a wonderful person. Kudos

  2. [...] of the lessons that journalism pioneer John Quinn taught me a while back has stuck with me throughout the years: “Get it first,” he used [...]

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