Meet Shia Kapos
Political news junkies and informed citizens throughout Chicago and Illinois start their day by reading “Illinois Playbook.” It’s a comprehensive political newsletter written by Shia Kapos that hits inboxes Monday through Friday a little after 7 a.m. Since 2018, Kapos has been both covering and driving the local news cycle as one of the most influential reporters in the state. I spoke with her for about an hour on Feb. 2, 2023 when I was guest hosting on WCPT-AM. This is a revised, edited transcript of our conversation.
Eric Zorn: Tell me a little bit more about yourself. Where’d you grow up? What did you folks do?
Shia Kapos: I grew up in a little farming community outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, and I’m the daughter of public school teachers. Our household was really focused on education. We were big newspaper readers. We used to sit around the table, my three sisters and my parents and I, and talk about what was in the papers.
My dad was a high school teacher. My mom taught elementary school. But they both focused on special education. There weren’t special ed classes as such back then. But if you were a kid who showed signs of learning disabilities, they put you into classrooms with teachers like my parents who had degrees in special education and worked to keep those students in the school system.
EZ: Were your sisters older or younger?
SK: They’re all younger, and they’re all in Utah now, so the dynamics of our relationship have changed. I was always the bossy organized one, but because I’m not there, they’ve taken charge, and now I do whatever I’m told when I’m back home.
EZ: So take us back. You’re a kid. You’re reading newspapers. Were you thinking you wanted to be a journalist?
SK: I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. But I worked on my high school newspaper, and I really enjoyed it. And I worked on the yearbook staff, and I enjoyed that. I loved putting together the whole thing, whether it was the newspaper for the week or the yearbook. When I was a senior in high school, I applied to the Salt Lake Tribune.And I got a letter back from the editor saying, “Thank you very much, but we don’t hire 17-year-olds.” So then I went off to the University of Utah.
EZ: And were you studying journalism?
SK: Yes, I was studying journalism.
EZ: And working on the Daily Utahan or whatever they called the student paper?
SK: Close. The Daily Utah Chronicle. Then I got a call one day from the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune. I had turned 18, and he said, “I’d like to interview you.” I went downtown. I had just gotten a car, it was a stick shift. And I didn’t know how to drive it very well. And it was very stressful. I got to the interview. It’s like a 2:30 p.m. interview. And, I don’t even remember how it went. But at the end, he said, “OK,” and he took me to the newspaper library — this was before newspapers archived everything online — and he showed me where they kept the clips, how they indexed them, where the phones were. Then he said, “And here are the women you’ll be working with.” Then he had me work a full shift.
Later I got promoted to be the indexer. So that meant I was like Google back then. I went through the entire paper and indexed everything — names, places, subjects — and put the clips into little envelopes. That’s how I started. I did that through college. And then after graduation I got a job working as a copy editor and did a little reporting for about a year before my husband, Peter, and I moved to San Francisco where I was a radio reporter. I don’t really have a voice for radio, but I learned a lot doing that.
EZ: You met your husband in college?
SK: Yes, he was the editor of the student paper, and I was the editorial writer. I knew he was the guy for me because, when it came time to sit down and talk about what our editorial position was going to be, I found that I always aligned with him on politics. So we developed a friendship and the next thing you know, we were married
EZ: While you were in college?
SK: No, we graduated first.
EZ: What did he do in San Francisco?
SK: He worked at a place called Information Access. It was right at the dawn of the internet and it was some kind of digital indexing company. Then the Salt Lake Tribune hired me to be their political editor.
EZ: You must have been staying in touch with them for them to have hired you for such an important job.
SK: Yes, my sister worked there, when she was in college, too. And she became a very noted education writer and then became a well-known food writer.
EZ: And the other two sisters, are they also journalists?
SK: No, they both work in business.
EZ: You were pretty young to be a political editor at a major paper.
SK: Yes, and all the reporters on my team were veteran political reporters. They didn’t need the kind of line editing that junior reporters would need. What they needed was somebody to organize and coordinate the coverage, to go into the meetings and pitch stories and generally be their advocate. So that’s what I did.
Another thing I did during every legislative session was to pull together a full page of legislative news every day. That meant I had to decide what the lead story was going to be, what would be reduced to a brief, what the fun quotes would be, where the birthdays and other tidbits would go. It was an ordeal but I laugh now because I think here I am pulling together Playbook and it really is a lot like what I was doing way back then.
EZ: So had you started a family at that point?
SK: Yes, we had our first child at the end of the ‘90s. So he’s now 25. I also have a teenager born after we moved to Chicago. At their request I don’t talk publicly about them or post on social media about them.
EZ: Understood. Anyway, you’re in Utah, you’ve got a young family and the Chicago Tribune comes calling?
SK: No, back then my husband worked for CitySearch, which was a national online site for restaurant reviews, movie reviews and entertainment options. It operated in a bunch of cities around the country and he was hired to oversee the Midwest out of Chicago. Knowing we were coming to Chicago, I called the Tribune and got hired in 2001 to a two-year residency, which was an opportunity offered to young journalists to get experience and build their resumes with no guarantee or expectation that they’d be hired at the end of the two years.
But being a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune was tremendous because I traveled all over the city doing a range of stories. And some of the sources that I developed back then, I still call today. The Tribune didn’t hire me at the end of my residency, but the experience opened doors. I became the Midwest correspondent for People Magazine for three years.
Most stories were human-interest, but it was a lot of celebrity coverage, and I got tired of that. An opening came up at Crain’s Chicago Business, where I had done a few freelance pieces. And they hired me for their lifestyle section. At Crain’s I worked for Andrea Hanis. She’s a great ideas person, and it was her initiative that started the Taking Names column ,where I wrote about local notables and what they were doing away from the office.
It wasn’t gossip, exactly, because I reported everything out. A lot of what I wrote about was how they spent their money when they weren’t working. And I did that for 10 years.
Then I took the column to the Sun Times where I wrote it for two years under editor Jim Kirk. But that was when the Sun-Times was in a lot of financial distress, and in the end they couldn’t afford me. So I took a job at a financial news company doing similar work, writing about activist investors. I loved it. Had a great editor.
Then I got a call from somebody who said I should apply to take over Politico’s Illinois Playbook because Natasha Korecki, who started it here when Politico was branching out, was becoming a national correspondent.
I was really happy where I was but I interviewed with them. I didn’t think I’d get the job because I was a little too enthusiastic about it. I was like, “I am made for this job!” I knew the newsletter was something I could just really wrap my arms around and really do well. I was worried that they would be put off by my confidence and enthusiasm. But it turned out they were thrilled to find somebody who was so excited about the job. Of course I was secretly a little worried because I hadn’t done a lot of reporting in Springfield, which was Natasha’s forté. She’d been a political writer at the Sun-Times and was a real force in the state And I was a little slow getting up to speed with that. But readers and editors were patient, and now it works well.
EZ: How do you manage to pull off such an ambitious newsletter five days a week?
SK: After I post early on Friday morning I usually pass out for an hour. Because it’s physically challenging. I don’t drink anymore. I eat a low-carb site to keep my energy up
EZ: What is a typical day like?
SK: I wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. and give the newsletter a last, fresh look. I check online to see if the papers or TV stations have posted any new stories that I’ll need to swap in. Then I send it to my editor who spends an hour or so with. it. After it’s mailed out and posted online (https://www.politico.com/tipsheets/illinois-playbook ) I start thinking right away about the next day. I read, I set up interviews but I have to wait and see what the day holds.
EZ: Which frequencies do you monitor?
SK: The Tribune, the Sun-Times, ABC 7, NBC 5, Twitter. And people send me stuff all the time. But part of my job is to break stories. At the end of every week we have a meeting and the editor asks what were our scoops and we’re supposed to have them.
So all day I’m weighing what should be at the top of the page tomorrow, what I should be pursuing. And remember it’s Illinois Playbook. Not Chicago playbook. So that means I don’t want to run with a mayor’s-race story every day, even though I do find that very fascinating.
There are two kinds of people who read the Playbook There are hardcore political junkies, who often know more than I do. And there are casual readers who are interested but they don’t want to be dragged into all the minutia. So my challenge is to write it in a way that’s interesting to the political junkie who knows everything but also interesting to somebody who’s just like my neighbor who just wants to know what’s going on.
EZ: What do you do outside of work to keep your life in balance?
SK: Well, I have a teenager so a lot of my downtime is driving to pick him up from school, watching him play basketball and so on. That’s good downtime for me because he doesn’t want to hear about work. Also I have really good friends I see. I’m in a poker club with a bunch of current or former journalists. We play once a month, and we have big dinner parties. And that’s a fun relief. Because as you know, when you’re a journalist, the news and the job are what’s in your head all the time. So it’s nice to have friends and people around you who understand when, at the last minute, you say “Gosh, I can’t do this, because I’ve got to go cover a story.” Those are the friends who are like, “OK, no problem,” because they understand the job.
EZ: Is writing “Illinois Playbook” a job that you envision having for a long time? Are there other things you have in mind to do as a journalist?
SK: I’m already branching into doing more big-picture stories for Politico, and those stories are very time consuming.
Like, a few weeks ago, I was working on a piece about towns that are on the border between states where abortion is legal, like Illinois, and states where it’s not. These are tiny towns that are being transformed because abortion clinics are being set up there. And that was a very labor intensive interview process. I loved it. It’s fun to do that kind of work. And so I’ll probably shift at some point to do more of that.
But I still love doing the Playbook. I love the subject matter. I love the political community and I enjoy feeling like I’m part of the discussion.