Modesto Bee Publisher and President Eric Johnston will leave at the end of next week to become chief operating officer at Pioneer News Group, a Seattle-based newspaper publisher with operations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Johnston, who has served as publisher since 2009, will depart March 7. A search for his replacement is underway, said Bob Weil, vice president of operations for The McClatchy Co., which owns The Bee.
Prior to his current job, Johnston held key online and interactive positions with The Fresno Bee and The Modesto Bee. After his appointment as Modesto Bee publisher, he also assumed oversight of the Merced Sun-Star.
“The most difficult part of this decision was leaving Modesto. It has been my home – both professionally and personally – for nearly 14 years,” Johnston said. “I am incredibly proud of the work we have done at The Modesto Bee and know that the dedicated, passionate staff will continue that long tradition of excellence and community service.”
Johnston has deep roots in the Central Valley. Born in Modesto and raised in Stockton, he joined McClatchy in 1999 at The Fresno Bee. Then he came on board at The Modesto Bee in 2000 as the director of interactive media. Nine years later, he became the first publisher in McClatchy history to be promoted to that role from the digital side of the business.
Bee Editor and Senior Vice President Joseph Kieta said Johnston’s commitment to quality journalism has been a hallmark of his tenure at Modesto. “Eric is a great ‘people person’ and has been a strong advocate for the newsroom during his time as publisher,” Kieta said. “His passion for the future of the news business is contagious. I’ll miss working with him, yet I’m very excited about this great opportunity he has to further his career.”
Johnston took over in Modesto after a period of turmoil for The Bee and the entire newspaper industry. Publications across the country saw a sharp decline in advertising revenue because of the economic downturn and digital competitors. The Bee had reduced staff and moved its printing to The Sacramento Bee before Johnston took the helm.
“I liken it to the captain being pulled overboard by the Kraken and me taking the empty wheel afterward,” Johnston said. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to achieve and keep the newsroom as strong as we have. We’ve been a good watchdog even though it has been challenging. I feel I’m leaving Modesto in some way better than when we I started.”
Former Modesto Bee Publisher Lynn Dickerson, who hired Johnston in 2000, said he has helped bring the paper into a digital future. “I hired Eric just a few months after I arrived at The Bee as publisher in 2000. He was the young, hip, online whiz kid who helped all us old traditional newspaper execs move into the digital age,” said Dickerson, who is now chief executive officer of the Gallo Center for the Arts. “It’s been fun and rewarding to watch him grow over the past almost 14 years. I wish him all the best in this new adventure in the Northwest.”
Johnston said his interest in community newspapers spurred him to join the Pioneer News Group. The company oversees a chain of 26 papers across several Northwestern states. He begins in his new position in Seattle on March 17.
Weil praised Johnston’s leadership skills and strong advocacy of digital publishing. He said the search for Johnston’s replacement will look at candidates both within the company and nationwide. There is no set timeline for when his successor will be hired.
“We want to find the right talent who is the right fit for Modesto,” Weil said. “Modesto is a very important paper in McClatchy and has a rich history in the company. We need a good leader with a demonstrated record of achievement – someone with an understanding of the power of digital and the strong importance print has.”