Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: The Chicago Tribune’s Kim Quillen

March 8, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Kim Quillen

Kim Quillen‘s print journalism career has taken her across the nation: Delaware, Arizona, Louisiana and the Windy City, where since 2016 she’s served as a business editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Kim isn’t that flashy journalist who splashes her scoops across social media. She’s a humble, behind-the-scenes presence: stable and reliable in an environment where the Tribune doesn’t just report business news, but also remains an ongoing business news story since the controversial Alden Capital took over in 2021.

I chatted with Kim about moving across geographies for the craft, her longtime participation in the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) and where she’s happiest when not in the newsroom.

Dawn Wotapka: Tell me about how you got into this field.

Kim Quillen: I’ve always been drawn to journalism. In elementary school, I organized my friends into a small news staff, and we wrote a community newspaper that we sold around the neighborhood. One of my first articles for our little paper was on the price of career. I enjoy writing, meeting interesting people, digging into stories, learning new things, and the public service aspect of journalism, so the news business has always felt like a good fit for me.

Dawn: What led you to the Chicago Tribune?

Kim: Like a lot of journalists, I’ve made a couple of geographic moves. After college, I spent several years in my home state working for the Delaware State News. It was a great learning experience, and when I was ready to move on I landed at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where I spent more than 10 years as assistant business editor and later business editor. New Orleans is a great news town, and I was working for a terrific paper with a lot of very talented editors and reporters who helped me grow. I loved it and really found my footing there, but when the newspaper underwent a significant restructuring in 2012, I moved to The Arizona Republic.

The Arizona desert turned out to be pretty cool, and I liked the people and the hiking, and even the dry heat. But when the opportunity at the Tribune presented itself, I decided to move to Chicago. Chicago’s a terrific place, even in the winter, and it’s a little closer to my family on the East Coast. [Editor’s Note: Chicago’s winter was unseasonably mild. We’ll check in with Kim again in 2023-’24.]

Dawn: You have print journalism roots yet work within what’s effectively a 24-hour news cycle. How do you manage that?

Kim: The 24-hour digital news cycle we work in today means the focus really is on producing great journalism, staying competitive in our news reporting, and giving our readers revelatory coverage, whether they’re reading us in print, on their laptop, or on their mobile phone. Part of my job does involve mapping out and producing print sections, and we try to give our print readers a great product, but my overarching focus is on providing good journalism.

Dawn: What will it take for print journalism to thrive going forward?

Kim: The key to thriving is to continue selling digital subscriptions; to do that, the coverage and product experience we offer need to be worth paying for. That means we need to focus on high-quality journalism, stories that surprise and delight readers, and coverage that can’t be found anywhere else.

Dawn: You’ve been active with SABEW. How do professional organizations benefit journalists?

Kim: As a past president of SABEW, I’m pretty biased in favor of professional journalism organizations. Joining SABEW or a similar group gives you access to training, networking, and employment or hiring opportunities. It helps broaden your understanding of the news industry and exposes you to new ideas and perspectives.

Many of these groups also offer annual journalism contests, so there’s a chance to have your work recognized. Even beyond those individual benefits, these groups advocate for our industry at large. SABEW, for example, is an active First Amendment advocate and has rolled out programs in recent years aimed at helping newsrooms diversify their ranks. SABEW also works with college business journalism programs around the country in an effort to increase the pipeline of young people coming into the industry.

Dawn: You have a master’s degree. What led you to pursue that?

Kim: I earned an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, and I had an interest in becoming a business journalist, but I knew I still needed to work on my reporting and writing skills. So I enrolled in American University’s master’s in journalism program. At the time, American offered a special track for business journalists that I was a part of.

Dawn: How has it helped your career?

Kim: It helped me develop my journalism skills and launch my career. I also remain in touch with many of my classmates from that program, and those relationships have been helpful to my career. My former classmates are now scattered all over doing amazing things; I value their friendship and support.

Dawn: What career would you have chosen if you weren’t in journalism?

Kim: As a kid, I thought I wanted to be an interior designer.

Dawn: Who have been your mentors over the years?

Kim: Peter Kovacs was my boss at The Times-Picayune for many years, and I’m a better journalist because of the time I spent working for him. Peter, who went on to serve as editor of The Advocate, The Times-Picayune, and Nola.com, is a terrific editor and newsroom leader. I have also learned a lot from Mary Ellen Podmolik, former business editor of the Chicago Tribune and now editor of Modern Healthcare.

One of the great things about being involved in SABEW is that I’ve had a chance to get to know a variety of business journalists. That’s given me a network of formal and informal mentors who inspire me, serve as role models, and are there to talk things over if I need a sounding board or am navigating a tricky juncture.

Dawn: What advice do you give to young journalists?

Kim: The industry has changed a lot, but journalism is still about telling great stories, holding public officials accountable, and advocating for the truth. So it’s important to really hone those core reporting, interviewing and writing skills.

To thrive in today’s industry, you also need to be able to hustle, multi-task, have a digital mindset, and navigate social media and all of the other platforms and technologies that are changing both reporting and content delivery. Being a team player will serve you well. And lastly, buckle your seatbelt. It’s a tough business, and there will definitely be ups and downs, but journalism is an incredibly rewarding and exciting profession.

Dawn: What has been the most exciting story of your career?

Kim: Being involved in The Times-Picayune’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina is something I will always remember. I was a part of the team that rode the storm out in the newsroom and evacuated a day later to Baton Rouge, where we continued coverage from a hastily arranged temporary base of operations. It was a huge, multi-faceted, challenging story, and we would spend six weeks covering it from Baton Rouge before returning to New Orleans. Our staff was working nonstop while also grappling with displacement and the loss of homes, pets, and more. It was tough. The experience taught me a lot about journalism and big, complex stories. It also taught me how to lead and support a team, even during a trying time, and how to maintain perspective.

Dawn: What do you do when you’re not helping put out a newspaper?

Kim: When I’m not in the newsroom, one of the places I’m happiest is in the ceramics studio. I started taking pottery classes back in New Orleans, and I never stopped! I found a ceramics studio in Phoenix and continued taking classes when I lived out there. Here in Chicago, I’m involved with a local art center where I work on the potter’s wheel and help teach adult ceramics classes on the weekends. I also play the clarinet, and I read as much as I can.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at dwotapka@gmail.com. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn. 

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