CQS 25th Anniversary Tribute: Karen Catone

Karen Catone

Karen Catone
CQS Program Director

The inspiration for what would first become known as The Chips Quinn Memorial Fund for Minority Scholars in Journalism was born out of late-night telephone calls between two newsmen, John C. “Chips” Quinn, Jr., and his father John, after they had put their respective newspapers to bed. Chips was managing editor of the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal at the time, and John was editor in chief of USA TODAY. Aside from discussions about family matters, the calls usually covered two topics. The first, according to John, was how each newspaper had covered the stories of the day – with Chips usually telling his father how his newspaper played the news right and USA TODAY played it wrong.

The second topic was how Chips longed to diversify the workforce at the Journal, which, like many newspapers in the late 1980s, was (sorely) lacking in editorial staff members of color. This at a time when the mid-Hudson Valley was dealing with several incidents of racial unrest, including the story of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who alleged she was abducted and raped by a gang of white men including a prosecutor and state police officer. Chips wanted to know: Where was the network of diversity that could help his newsroom accurately and fairly cover its community?

On June 3, 1990, Chips died in a car accident in Carolina, R.I. He was 34. The following dawn, as his parents wrestled through the night with their grief, they came up with an idea to keep his dream and his spirit alive: a program that would continue the work of diversifying not only the Poughkeepsie Journal newsroom, but newsrooms across the country.

One year later, with the help of trusted colleagues and funding from memorial contributions and the Freedom Forum, the first class of six Chips Quinn Scholars gathered in the rooftop conference center of the Freedom Forum’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., for the inaugural orientation program. Then they headed off to paid summer internships at newspapers nationwide.

And so it began.

Since then, no two orientation programs have been exactly alike. Class sizes have varied, from as few as six Scholars to as many as 129, and everything in between. Orientation programs have been held in Arlington, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and, since 2007, at the John Seigenthaler Center on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Once two and a half days in length, orientation is now a weeklong program that includes intense, hands-on multimedia training.

The program expanded in 1998 to a year-round program, downsized in 2002 to a spring and summer program and, in 2016, has returned to a summer program.

It has endured the passing of Loie Quinn in 2005 and the recent absence at orientation of John Quinn, who, at age 90, has finally surrendered to the challenges of air travel. (Do not interpret this to read that JCQ is no longer involved with the program. I speak with him by phone on a regular basis. And Career Coach Colleen Fitzpatrick and I visit with him in person several times a year. So he continues to be very involved with the program, offering his ideas, suggestions and endless encouragement from the sidelines.) The program is now facing perhaps its greatest challenge of all:  the ever-changing landscape of journalism.

Despite the changes and challenges, the program continues, its mission as important today as a quarter-century ago. And its magic is just as fresh – thanks to the college journalism advisers, who encourage their students to apply, to the program’s enthusiastic alumni and to the dedicated trainers, staff, guest speakers and career coaches. And to the Freedom Forum’s continued funding, along with contributions from alumni and friends. And last, but not least, to the commitment of news organizations across the country and their caring editors. They have supported Chips Quinn Scholars for a quarter of a century by providing paid internships and nurturing newsroom environments, and they continue to look to this network of diverse talent whenever opportunities arise in their newsrooms.

We invite all participants, supporters and friends of the Chips Quinn Scholars program to enjoy our tribute in honor of its 25th anniversary.

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