By Katie Nelson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Day In the Life
During the past five years, The Washington Post has ridden a roller coaster of fickle international politics and navigated a series of internal ups and downs.
Despite the wild ride, The Post’s Sunday Business Editor Kelly Johnson said she feels calm.
“There’s not much downside in my job, to be honest,” Johnson said during a phone interview. “I feel very fortunate to have the job.”
Every week, Johnson is put in charge of deciding how to fill the business section of the Sunday paper. She curates content and assigns photo packages and illustrations to communicate the week’s theme. Then, she works with reporters, editors and columnists from other sections of the paper to write the content.
“I sort of just work with everyone on staff,” she said. “I certainly feel I have the best job at The Washington Post because I have so much flexibility, and I end up getting to work with people on the stories they’re most excited about doing.”
Despite the large pool of people, resources and space she has to draw from for her section each week, Johnson said she doesn’t have to negotiate with other editors for it.
“I also feel like I sort of work in a fantasy world of journalism,” she said.
If anything, Johnson said the hardest part of her job is going out into the newsroom and trying to convince reporters to take on an extra project and write for her section, but even that’s not too hard.
“I find that, if you’re helping them do something that they’re really excited about doing, that’s not really very difficult,” she said.
Born In the Business
Johnson describes her job as though it is easy, or at the very least, something she’d planned on doing her whole life. Her family has a history in the journalism business. Her great-grandfather owned the Ivanhoe Times in Ivanhoe, Minn., at a time when each staff member had multiple roles.
“They sold ads, then they wrote stories, then they took pictures, then they delivered the paper,” Johnson said. “I think, when times were tough, they actually bartered with people for subscriptions.”
Like his father, her grandfather also ended up in the newspaper industry, working for The Star Tribune in Minnesota before moving to South Dakota.
“We would sit at family dinners, and I would hear the wonderful stories of all these sort of rich characters,” Johnson said.
Realizing Her Calling
Despite a profession that seemed hereditary, Johnson said she never considered being a journalist until she woke up about a month into her senior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and realized she had no idea where she was going to work after graduation.
“I wasn’t sure why anyone would hire me,” she said. “I was very good at reading books, but I realized there wasn’t a lot of skill associated with that. It’s like a light bulb went on and it occurred to me: ‘I wonder if I could be a journalist.’”
So she walked over to the College of Journalism and met Dick Thien.
“He had a Mickey Mouse T-shirt on and a badly sunburned head. He took me into his office, and we had a long chat,” she said. “He asked me all sorts of questions about my family and interests, and I think he was gauging a sense of my temperament. And then he looked at me and he said, ‘You’re going to be an editor. I can tell this is your track.’”
Johnson enrolled in the journalism college that same day.
Editing as a Career
She breezed through journalism classes, then stayed on to complete a master’s degree. During her time in school, she had a Dow Jones News Fund internship at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., and an internship at The Washington Post. After graduating, Johnson found a job at The Oregonian in Portland, where she worked for seven years. She ultimately ended up back at The Washington Post, starting as a copy editor on the foreign desk.
Throughout her years in journalism, Johnson said she has always been an editor.
“One of my best friends from J School … she loved the idea of going to the Unicameral and nosing around and asking people questions. I didn’t really love that idea – that didn’t seem exciting to me,” Johnson said. “I was much more interested in the story that came back and helping a writer figure out what the story was and helping shape the story and working on the story.”
And it’s exactly that temperament that Johnson says is the key to being a successful editor. She said the best editors are able to concentrate, are curious and have an interest in the world – how things work and why things are the way they are. She also recommends reading – lots of reading.
But it’s not just knowing a lot of details that makes a person a good editor. It’s also a specific attitude.
“I have a pretty strong feeling that my job is primarily for the readers, to provide them with the information that they need to get on with their lives to be informed citizens,” she said. “I also work very much for the reporters and the writers. I see my job very simply as doing everything I can to help them do the work that they want to do and to help them write the best stories they can write … you can see yourself in almost a support role.”
During her time at The Post, Johnson has seen the journalism landscape change dramatically. The Washington Post has had two new editors in chief since she started, has gone through a series of buyouts and now has a different owner. Johnson said her section is the only officially printed business section offered by The Post. Additionally, The Post has changed its view of online media, with the addition of Ezra Klein and Wonkblog. Klein has since left the paper, but Johnson said the paper plans to continue Wonkblog. She also said she is working to develop a data-based blog that will launch in the near future.
Even amid the changes, she said, the basics of journalism remain the same. And there’s one bit of advice Johnson picked up from NPR’s Ira Glass that she said still rings true:
“We must amuse ourselves at the most basic level to produce work that other people are going to be interested in,” she said. “It’s just more satisfying to do work that you’re proud of.”