Remembering John C. Quinn

John C. Quinn, 1925-2017

By Colleen Fitzpatrick
Special to chipsquinn.org

John C. Quinn, who with his wife Lois founded one of the premier journalism diversity programs in the country after he retired from a newspaper career in which he helped to launch USA TODAY and served as its editor-in-chief, died July 11 in Rhode Island. He was 91.

The Chips Quinn Scholars program, named for the couple’s eldest son and funded by the Newseum Institute, has provided training and internships to nearly 1,400 student journalists of color since its founding in 1991.

“The Chips Quinn program has changed the face and fabric of newsrooms across the country thanks to John and Loie Quinn’s vision and commitment to diversity,” said Kristen Go, a 1996 and 1997 Scholar. “The program gave me the confidence in my skills, support to grow as a journalist and the idea to dream big – that one day, I could become a top newsroom editor who could hire other Chips Quinn Scholars.”

The program also gave Talia Buford, a 2004 Scholar who later worked at The Providence Journal where Quinn got his start, “the confidence (and support) to weather self-doubt and growing pains as a young journalist,” Buford said. “That confidence would prove vital as I progressed in my career, in newsrooms where I would often be one of the few people of color. The Chips Quinn program laid the groundwork to help me claim my place there.”

Quinn’s pioneering efforts were recognized by the National Association of Multicultural Media Executives, which presented him with the Distinguished Diversity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. It was the final award among many that he would receive throughout his life.

Before launching the nationwide diversity program, Quinn spent nearly half a century reporting for, editing and managing newspapers. He worked for The Providence Journal newspapers in his home state of Rhode Island, and then held various positions within Gannett Co. Inc., where he was known among colleagues as the conscience of the newspaper chain. Quinn’s newspaper career began and ended on Easter Sundays 47 years apart.

Even as financial, technological and cultural changes profoundly changed the role and status of newspapers, his unwavering message was that journalistic excellence was its own reward.

Quinn loved his chosen work. He often said that newspaper reporting and editing was the “most fun a person could have with his clothes on.”

He showed up earlier to the job and left later than other newsroom employees. His work ethic and dedication to readers were renown among his colleagues. One Saturday night he excused himself from a dinner party he and his wife were hosting to make sure the sports department of the Rochester, N.Y., newspapers, where he was editor, was making the best use of a new system for reporting football scores. It wasn’t. So he took over, ensuring that the scoreboard worked for readers.

“John had an almost mystical relationship with his work, as though he and his work were one,” Gloria Biggs, a former Gannett publisher, said as Quinn was retiring from Gannett.

He was also known for his wise and compassionate newsroom leadership. Quinn was a recruiting beacon, expert at recognizing and nurturing talent. From his earliest days in management, he took a special interest in young reporters and editors and in having a diverse workforce.

“He understood better than most editors that you can’t reflect the community if your own newsroom is all from the same group,” Peter S. Prichard, a former chief news executive with Gannett and editor of USA TODAY, and current chair of the Newseum’s board of trustees, recalled at the time of Quinn’s retirement.

Quinn’s support for journalism ethics and courage also was legendary. He railed against the use of anonymous sources in news articles; warned against “pack” journalism and writing for journalism and government insiders; and espoused the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. His idea of a good newspaper, he said, was “a community talking to itself.”

Jay Harris, a former Gannett News Service reporter and columnist and Knight Ridder vice president, once said, “In John’s hands, principles and power complemented one another. The principles shaped and guided the use of the power. The power was used to advance the principles.”

The late John Seigenthaler, former publisher of The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA TODAY, was a Gannett colleague of Quinn’s as newsrooms started to feel the effects of the shift from private to public ownership of newspapers and as corporate officers increasingly focused on stock market returns and profit margins.

Quinn’s agenda for corporate meetings included moments “that were designed to provoke publishers to think about news quality; to understand that decision-making in the newsroom is as important as decision-making in the board room; to believe that the headline and what went under it is as important as the bottom line and what went over it,” Seigenthaler, who later founded the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said as Quinn retired in 1990.

Leading by example

Quinn’s courage was reflected in quieter moments, as well. He applied the same level of scrutiny to himself as he did each day’s newspaper, sometimes with humor.

Bob Dubill, a former senior editor at USA TODAY, once recalled how, as the paper was going to bed, Quinn seemed troubled as he inspected Page 1. He scribbled notes on a piece of paper, stared into space, scribbled again. He was not his usual affable self.

As he left the composing room, a staffer asked if everything was all right. Quinn, his hand on the bathroom door, replied, “It has been one of those days. I’m going in here because in the men’s room I know what I do is right.”

Quinn’s direct and sometimes salty speech – “Bullshit!” he once told a corporate audience after taking the podium from an editor who was hammering on the need for fiscal austerity – was but one tack in an arsenal of communication approaches.

His memos “were impeccable in their elusiveness,” Robert Giles, former publisher and editor of The Detroit News, once recalled. “It was the same when you rang up John for counsel. You didn’t get advice, but you did. He wouldn’t tell you what he thought, but you knew…You understood what the answer was, and he left you to think you had figured it out for yourself.”

Quinn also pounded out internal Gannett communiqués, called Wire Watch, as well as quips, edicts and witticisms known as “JCQ-isms” on his Underwood No. 5 typewriter.

He never used email and professed ignorance about multimedia storytelling and the use of social media as a tool to report and publish news. Despite technology’s profound reshaping of the news landscape in recent decades, he argued that the underlying principles of producing accurate and honest journalism would never change.

“I don’t care if it (news) is delivered on the web, or a by a truck, or by a carrier pigeon,” he told the Press & Dakotan in Yankton, S.D., while accepting the 2007 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media, named for the late Gannett chairman who founded USA TODAY. “The basics of journalism, the joys of journalism and the demands of journalism are not going to change.”

Quinn understood well the demands of journalism: the long days and nights when news doesn’t quit; the pressure to get the story right, and get it first; the toll the job could take on personal lives. He urged young journalists to find a partner who would support them in their life’s work.

On that count, he never missed an opportunity to acknowledge his good fortune. He was married to the late Lois “Loie” (Richardson) Quinn, who died in September 2005. The previous June, the couple had celebrated 52 years of marriage, during which they raised four children and made homes in Rhode Island, in the Charlestown village of Carolina, and in Rochester, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Biggs, the former Gannett publisher, once asked Loie Quinn where her husband’s energy came from. She replied without hesitation: “‘Oh, it’s love. He’s totally surrounded at home by love,”’ Biggs recalled.

The couple, through their warmth and style, were a magnet to friends and outsiders alike, and the connection between them was so palpable that friends often spoke of them as a single entity: loieandjohn.

From Providence to Washington

John Collins Quinn was born in Providence on Oct. 24, 1925, the son of John A. and Kathryn (Collins) Quinn. He graduated from that city’s Classical High School in 1942.

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He began his newspaper career in 1943, as a night copy boy at The Providence Journal and The Evening Bulletin newspapers while attending Providence College, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1945.

He went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism in 1946, while working with the overnight news staff at NBC in New York City.

Returning to The Providence Journal, he worked through the ranks of reporter, assistant city editor and Washington correspondent to become day managing editor of the Journal-Bulletin. He left in 1966 after a total of 23 years on that news staff.

Quinn joined Gannett as director of news for its two Rochester newspapers at the time, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the Times-Union. He later added the role of president of the Gannett News Service, which won the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service in 1980, during his tenure.

He was promoted to the corporate staff of the nationwide Gannett Newspaper Group as its chief news executive, and in that role served as news planning leader for USA TODAY.

The 1982 launch of the publication that calls itself “The Nation’s Newspaper” was no small undertaking. The goal, as Neuharth envisioned it, was to create a national newspaper and make it available to residents in every corner of the United States. The effort required innovations such as using satellites to transmit the final editions to regional printing and distribution centers around the country.

Quinn, who was named editor of USA TODAY in 1983 and editor-in-chief in 1988, and the other founders did not seek to mimic in the new publication the look of national papers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Skeptical outsiders questioned whether the paper, which popped with color and presented information through succinct stories and the use of graphics, would succeed.

Within Gannett, there were no doubts. As Tom Curley, former president and chief operating officer of USA TODAY, would later recall, “Quinn and company had demonstrated for many years that any job could be done, usually a little past deadline, but always in time to toast its completion with a glass of chardonnay.”

Quinn retired from Gannett in 1990, after 24 years with the company and 47 years to the hour after first entering the newsroom in Providence.

He then became deputy chairman and a trustee of the Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to the enrichment of free press, free speech and free spirit. He served in recent years as an advisory trustee of the Freedom Forum.

“The Newseum and the Newseum Institute mourn the loss of John C. Quinn, a distinguished journalist and former deputy chairman of the Freedom Forum – a role in which he helped guide plans for the Newseum,”  said Jeff Herbst, president and chief executive officer.

A newsroom diversity program is launched

In June 1990, John and Loie Quinn’s oldest son, John C. “Chips” Quinn Jr., also a newspaper editor, died in a car accident at the age of 34. Within hours of his death, the grieving parents had founded a program in his name to offer training and internships to college journalism students of color to help bring greater diversity to newsroom staffs nationwide.

“Out of that tragedy comes hope,” John Quinn said in his opening address to each class of Chips Quinn Scholars. “Hope for tomorrow’s newsroom diversity, hope to keep Chips’ spirit alive …”

The Chips Quinn Scholars program includes African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American students, those of Middle Eastern descent and members of the LGBT community. Some 45 percent of the graduates are in news careers throughout the United States and abroad.

“Few things have had a deeper impact on my life and career than the Chips Quinn Scholars program created by John Quinn,” said Rick Jervis, a USA TODAY national correspondent based in Austin, Texas. “As a college junior in 1993, meeting John Quinn and absorbing the Old World journalism traits he exuded – honesty, integrity, hard work, grit – left a lasting impression on me. I’ve carried his teachings and his friendship with me ever since.”

Katie Oyan, a Scholar in 1997 and 2000 and currently the West desk editor for The Associated Press in Phoenix, echoed that sentiment. “John Quinn had a profound effect on my career and my life,” she said. “He was one of the greats, both professionally and personally. And to have him rooting for this small-town South Dakota girl – and I always knew he was – meant more than I can express. I’m beyond honored to have known him and Loie and to be able to count myself as part of their legacy, a proud Chipster.”

Buford, the former Providence Journal reporter who now covers disparities in environmental impacts for ProPublica, spoke for many Chipsters when she cited the sense of belonging the program gave her. “The Quinns started the Chips Quinn program to keep the legacy of their son alive. The love they had for Chips permeated everything they did, and it spread to us. We weren’t just a part of a program; we were part of the Quinn family. And you felt that with every hug or hand-typed note from John.”

Given the country’s shifting demographics, the program remains vital as newsrooms seek to hire staffs that better reflect the communities they serve, Karen Catone, Chips Quinn Scholars program director, said. “I’m not sure those of us associated with the program thought it would endure as long as it has. But of one thing I am certain: its mission is as important today as it was when the program was founded more than a quarter of a century ago.”

Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, said, “In an era of shrinking newsrooms and, frankly, a shrinking industry commitment to allocating financial resources toward a diverse newsroom, the Chips Quinn Scholars program is a rare – increasingly rare – resource to which smart editors and publishers can turn.”

Policinski continued, “The nation increasingly is diverse, and to reach that audience in the future, newsrooms need now more than ever to have staffers equipped to respond to those diverse interests and communities.”

Quinn believed that successful people have a duty to help others who come after them in their fields. He looked forward to the day when a hiring editor would say to a job applicant, “You’re a fellow Chips Quinn Scholar? Get your ass in here.”

Go, of the 1996 and 1997 classes, was one alumna who helped fulfill Quinn’s wish, which was also her big dream. “I was lucky enough to achieve that goal when I became one of the few top editors of color – the managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle – and helped hire other Chips Quinn Scholars,” she said.

Quinn’s 2008 award from the National Association of Multicultural Media Executives capped an exceptional record of service to journalism. He was one of the few editors to have been national president of both the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now American Society of News Editors) and Associated Press Managing Editors (now Associated Press Media Editors).

As APME president in 1973, Quinn forever will be linked, behind the scenes, with former President Richard Nixon. Quinn succeeded after much effort in convincing the embattled president to address APME’s convention in Orlando, Fla. It was at that gathering that Nixon, shaking and clutching the podium, declared, “I am not a crook.” Quinn acknowledged the criticism he received from some colleagues for having agreed to the president’s ground rule of taking no questions at the event.

In 1986, the National Press Foundation named Quinn its editor of the year. He received the Women in Communications Headliner Award that year, the William Allen White National Citation Award from the University of Kansas in 1987 and the Paul Miller/Oklahoma State University Medallion in 1988. In his home state, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1975.

At home in Carolina

Quinn, a fifth-generation Carolina resident, worked to preserve the history of the New England village, which was founded in the early 1800s when a river was dammed and a gristmill built. The mill was later retooled for textiles.

When the machines fell silent, the grounds became overgrown, the buildings decrepit. In the mid-1980s, as the land was about to be sold to an auto-graveyard business, Quinn stepped in and bought the complex, across the street from the family home. He and the children gave it to Loie as a Mother’s Day gift.

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He refurbished some of the mill buildings and became known around town as the unofficial keeper of local artifacts. Residents would offer old items – from typewriters and school desks to automobiles and 1930s-era seaside motel cabins – to Quinn before scrapping them. He had enough original material to transform one building into a well-stocked, old-fashioned general store.

Strolling about the property with his trademark walking stick, he hosted gatherings of the region’s Chips Quinn Scholars and alumni, as well as family and community events, at the mill.

Quinn is survived by two children, Lo-anne Quinn Cellar (Charles Cellar) of Carolina and R.B. Quinn (Mindy Merrell) of Nashville, and two grandchildren, Stephen Cellar and Amelia Cellar, both of San Francisco. In addition to his wife Loie and son Chips, he was predeceased by son Christopher A. “Kiffer” Quinn of Carolina and sister Kathryn Coletta of Suntree, Fla.

Quinn’s loyalty to his family, his work and the tenets of his Roman Catholic faith were the pillars that sustained him. For each, he had a JCQ-ism, reflected in the advice he gave to every new class of Chips Quinn Scholars:

  • He ordered the young journalists to call their parents often
  • He encouraged them to take their work, but not themselves, seriously
  • And, quoting his son Chips so often that the words resonated as Quinn’s own, he urged the Scholars to always “Care, care, care – take it and show it.”

Chips Quinn Scholars Program Director Karen Catone contributed to this report.

Colleen Fitzpatrick has been a career coach with the Chips Quinn Scholars program since 2000.

The funeral will be held on Saturday, July 15th from the Carolina Mill at 9 a.m. with mass at St. Mary’s Church (437 Carolina Back Road) in Carolina at 10 a.m. Burial will be at White Brook Cemetery in Carolina. (The Carolina Mill is located across the street from 525 Carolina Back Road.)

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13 thoughts on “Remembering John C. Quinn

  1. I, like many of those who were lucky enough to have known John, will at least have wonderful memories of a man who devoted his life to good journalism and to those who had the honor of working for him.

  2. With the news of John’s passing, I had an opportunity to relate some stories to those who had not known him. Those stories carried two themes. One, John was simply the finest newspaper man I met in my 40 years in the business. And two, John looked after me when some other folks didn’t.
    I shall be forever grateful.

  3. RIP, Dear John.
    Together with Jerry Sass, you provided inspiration and funds in 1975 for us to jump-start IJE, which became the Maynard Institute after Bob Maynard’s untimely passing. From early on, you were there for us and others as a pioneer and champion of the diversity movement in the American press. We owe a large debt to you. Thank you.

  4. John was one of my bosses at The Providence Journal, and he and the delightful and lovely Loie remained friends of my husband and me for the rest of their lives. John embodied the definition of journalism in this country: fair, accurate, driven and ethical. We will miss him greatly as a friend and as a journalist.

  5. That was a splendid obit, well deserved, and beautifully written. If ever a man was born to run newspapers, it was John C. Quinn, and he ran a good many of them. USA Today is a monument to his disciplined approach to the news and to his ability to move toward the future of the business.

    • Well said, Jim John was certainly a giant and will be greatly missed. I had the pleasure of knowing both him and Chips.

  6. John C. Quinn would likely have been tickled by this excellent reminscence. He lived fully, loved deeply, cared always and burned the entire candle. Very exceptional human being. Long ago, I delivered coffee to his desk, as a newsroom copy girl. It was my pleasure to do so.

  7. Wonderful and well-deserved tribute, Colleen.
    It should be required reading in journalism courses, and for anyone seeking examples of commitment to ideals and to personal integrity.

    • I agree that this remarkable tribute to an accomplished man should be required reading in journalism courses. The writing is superb!

      Definitely, as Betsy Shea-Taylor said, he would have been tickled by this excellent reminscence.

  8. I received the news with tremendous sadness. I will eternally be grateful for the opportunity to become a Chipster. Thank-you from the bottom of my heart. And my condolences to the family for such a tremendous loss.

  9. John C. Quinn was a giant among newspaper professionals and readers alike. He was an unequaled mentor to many — myself included. And he was our friend — a genuine kind of human being who comes along once in a lifetime. May he now rest in peace.
    — Kent Cockson
    Foley, Alabama

  10. Well done. I worked for John for 14 years, and was his friend and admirer for 50. You captured his spirit and his character.

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