For this week's My Job Story, I spoke with my Tokay High School classmate, Eric Johnston. For nearly two years, Eric has served as the Chief Operating Officer of The Pioneer News Group.
High Demand, Low Supply: How do you describe your job?
Eric Johnston: I provide oversight for 23 daily and weekly newspapers. This includes building sales strategy, developing editorial strength, optimizing financial performance and the like.
HDLS: How did you get this job?
Eric: As simple as it may sound, I saw it posted in a trade newsletter. I was working as a Publisher of a newspaper in Northern California and was intrigued by the opportunity to guide a larger group of newspapers in the northwestern US.
HDLS: What is a typical day like for you in your role?
Eric: During a typical day, I am working between a number of different audiences - I interact with the CEO and CFO of our company, developing plans for short-and-long term projects; I talk to publishers in the markets regarding their current operations and work on ways to roll out new programs or improve current ones; I often meet with current and potential new vendors to evaluate the value of their offerings to our business.
HDLS: What are the best parts of your job?
Eric: I love creating new things. Introducing products that have a direct benefit on our company, our business customers or our readership. In my current role, I am a bit more separated from the local markets than I was as a publisher - I have had to change my focus to strengthening the companies that serve the public, as opposed to serving the local market directly. I really enjoy seeing my teams succeed - those are good days.
HDLS: What was your first job?
Eric: My very first job was working for my father's industrial and welding supply store in Stockton back in the late 70s, early 80s. I also worked at my mom's store (The Balloonery, still in Stockton) all through high school - that's how family businesses are. My first non-family job was as a part-time photographer for the Lodi News-Sentinel when I was in high school. They hired me to shoot football and basketball games for Tokay and Lodi high schools.
HDLS: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Eric: I always had a romantic vision of being a research scientist. The white lab coats, Bunsen burners, bubbling liquids. But during my freshman year in high school, during a then-required parent-counselor-freshman student meeting, I shared this with Mrs. Mary Durham, my counselor. "But Eric, you stink at math," she replied. "What do you like to do?"
"I like my academic Journalism class with Mr. Woo," I responded. I really haven't looked back (and, while I am better at math, it is not my strongest subject).
HDLS: What is your career story? How did you get where you are now?
Eric: Starting with the counseling session described above, I focused (pun intended) on photojournalism all through high school and college. My first post-college job was with the Lodi News-Sentinel during a time when digital cameras were just becoming available. I was also introduced to building web sites during a digital photojournalism workshop in the mid-90s.
From there, I delved more deeply into newsroom technology and took a job back east as a newsroom systems manager, building templates for pagination and streamlining news and advertising workflows. After doing some pro-bono web development work for a local charity, the company asked me to run their web engineering operations for three newspapers in suburban Philadelphia.
After doing that for a couple of years, I longed to return to California. I was able to get on with The Fresno Bee as webmaster in the late 90s, and worked there for a couple of years until being recruited to sister publication, The Modesto Bee, in 2000. I ran the digital publishing operation (as well as classified advertising and, eventually, marketing) for 10 years until - in 2009 - I was promoted to Publisher and President of the The Bee, a role in which I served for 5 years.
In 2014 I left The Bee to come to Pioneer.
HDLS: What is the best career advice you have received?
Eric: Given to me by Roger Woo, journalism adviser at Tokay High School: "Learn how to write." I was reluctant, but he noted that in order for my photos to ever have accurate cutlines, I needed to be able to write them myself, rather than rely on an editor who wasn't there. He was right. I am thankful every day for being able to communicate clearly with the written word.
HDLS: What is the worst career advice you have received?
Eric: That managers have to appear perfect at all times. It is an unrealistic expectation - we are all human. We get sick, we have bad days, we get frustrated and angry. The key is managing those times and not letting them overwhelm all other efforts.
HDLS: What career advice would you give your younger self?
Eric: There are lots of people in the world you will work with - you can't make everyone happy. Be true to yourself, work hard and keep a level head. And, don't believe that nice guys finish last. You can be a nice guy and be a winner.
In high school, Eric almost always had a camera with him. It's wonderful to see how that passion for photojournalism led him to a successful career in the newspaper business. His job story demonstrates the value of learning new skills and taking advantage of opportunities to take on new responsibilities. Eric's story also shows the power of mentors, sometimes even before your career begins. Mrs. Mary Durham, his guidance counselor, and Mr. Roger Woo, his Journalism teacher, certainly had effect on the direction of his career. Thank you for sharing your story, Eric.
Eric and his wife, Susan, live in Seattle, Washington. They are very proud to have raised two wonderful daughters. One just finished a 5-year stint in the Navy and is now studying nursing in Southern California, the youngest is a graduate of CSU, Chico and is working in health care recruiting in Sacramento.