By Ken Sturtz
Alec Johnson is busy publishing Oswego Shopper and Oswego County News — and five daily newspapers and more than a dozen publications in what has become the largest family-owned newspaper group in Upstate New York.
On the wall of Alec E. Johnson’s office hangs a framed envelope containing nine cents and a note from his great-grandfather, Harold B. Johnson, saying that it was all he and his wife had on returning from their wedding trip in March 1903. Should anything happen to him the money was to be returned to his wife, the note advised.
“And the 9 cents was every penny they had in the world,” Johnson said.
Harold B. Johnson was raised in Gouverneur and worked for newspapers in Oregon and Montana. In 1904, at age 22, he landed a job as a reporter at The Watertown Daily Times. He was running the newspaper 15 years later and by 1932 had gained control of the company and became owner and publisher.
Johnson said he keeps the envelope and note as a reminder of the humble origins of his family’s newspaper business.
“He did it all on his own,” he said of his great-grandfather. “He was a self-made person.”
Alec Johnson is the scion of an expansive media company that’s dominated the news business and played a key role in shaping public discourse in the North Country for generations.
In January 2020, he was named president and chief operations officer of the Johnson Newspaper Corp., which includes the Times and daily and weekly newspapers across the North Country as well as the Hudson Valley, Batavia and Oswego County. He also serves as editor and publisher of the Times, the fourth generation of the Johnson family to hold the position.
At 36 years old Johnson finds himself at the helm of a company that grosses roughly $15 million a year, employs more than 200 people and reaches readers in many Upstate New York regions, including Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, an area slightly smaller than New Jersey.
In an earlier era, Johnson might have been content to sit back and allow a profitable business roll along without much thought about the future. But the advertising-based model supporting the news business has crumbled. Since 2005, the United States has lost more than 2,500 newspapers, mostly small weeklies, and is averaging about two closures a week.
“It’s a very challenging business to be in,” Johnson said. “Everyone says they support the newspaper, that they support local news, but they really only say that up to the point where they like to get it for free.”
In addition to the long-term headwinds facing the industry, Johnson took the helm months before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the economy. The earliest months of the pandemic kept him up nights to be sure, but he found solace in his roots.
“I’m not the only one in this position,” he said. “It’s been four generations of growth and then adapting to new technology. Now we’re at the latest crossroads of what to do to keep a print product in the marketplace.”
Uncertain on what career to follow
In many respects Johnson has been preparing to lead the family business since youth, although he wasn’t at all sure about a career in newspapers.
As a boy he used to visit his father and grandfather in their offices at the Times. He loved getting gumballs from the machine his grandfather kept in his office. On a recent Friday afternoon, he picked his daughter up and brought her to the office. After the 3-year-old informed him his office was messy, they straightened things up, drew some pictures together and then he took her around the building.
Growing up, when he visited his grandparents’ house for holidays and special occasions, the conversation around the dining room table often turned to the news, specifically world events.
Johnson’s first memory of the news was when he was about 5 years old at his grandparents’ house. One night instead of eating in the dining room, everyone crowded into the kitchen and ate at the breakfast table so they could watch television coverage of the first Gulf War.
He attended boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, but got his first taste of reporting during summer internships at the Times. Once he forgot to get the middle initial of a man arrested on burglary charges. He was at his grandparents’ house for dinner when he got a phone call from the city editor about the vital piece of identifying information.
“I was told ‘We have a policy here. We use courtesy titles and middle initials and you filed a photo caption without a middle initial,’” he said.
The message was clear: figure it out or it’s not running. Johnson grabbed the phonebook and started dialing. He finally managed to get in touch with the man’s father, who shared the initial.
“It took a long time, but it was one of those experiences that you never forget,” he said. “I’ll never ask people to do what I haven’t done.”
Johnson was uncertain in high school on what career he wanted to pursue. He did an internship his last semester at Phillips Exeter with then Congressman John McHugh in Washington.
“And it was among the most interesting and transformative times in my life because I got to see how government operated from inside and I’d always been on the other side reading about it,” Johnson said. “Being in the office I learned about how deals are made and how much the office really does for constituents.”
As a student at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he still wasn’t sure if journalism was for him. He joined the student newspaper and eventually became editor-in-chief, but he was a political science major and also interested in the law.
After college, journalism won out. He was accepted into Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. At a job fair at Columbia he met the executive editor of the Republican-American, a family-owned newspaper based in Waterbury, Connecticut, and applied for a job.
When he started there as a reporter Johnson decided not to tell anyone, aside from his two bosses and the owners, that he came from a newspaper family. He worried that if word got around he’d receive preferential treatment and wouldn’t have a chance to learn.
“I never told a soul,” he said. “I wanted to be known for my own work, not for my family owning papers.”
He started as a general assignment reporter and was promoted a few years later to run one of the newspaper’s regional bureaus. He supervised reporters and continued reporting. He received awards for his work, including coverage of the practices of the state’s only private tax collector.
“On day one I told my boss I wanted to be on the other side of the desk,” Johnson said. “I wanted an opportunity to learn more about editing.”
He became business editor and in 2017 was promoted to assistant managing editor. He focused on coaching new reporters and developing the newspaper’s website and social media strategy.
In the spring of 2018 he received a call from his cousin, John B. Johnson, who was chief executive officer and co-publisher of the Times. Longtime managing editor Perry White was retiring. Was he interested in the position?
Johnson hesitated. His long-term goal had been to gain enough experience as an editor to move back to Watertown.
“But at the same time, I also didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I felt a lot of loyalty to the family I’d worked with; they’d really helped develop me and now I was going to leave.”
He’d moved to Connecticut thinking it would be a two-year stint. Instead he’d been there eight years and had a job he liked. He’d also married in 2016. He and his wife, Gabrielle N. West, had bought a house there and she was finishing a master’s in nutritional science.
Later that spring his cousin told him he needed to know if Johnson was taking the job or if they had to begin a hiring search.
“I definitely wanted to do it, but at the same time all of a sudden now this is what I’ve been working for my whole life and I don’t know if I’m ready for it or I don’t know if the timing is right,” Johnson said. “I was still hemming and hawing and I was pretty emotional about it.”
His wife encouraged him to take the job and he decided to do it. He broke the news to his boss. At a going away party the publisher of the Republican-American, who was in his 80s, gave a speech wishing him well.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Johnson here is not a journalist,” he said. “He’s a newspaperman and there’s a difference. He’s a newspaperman and he’s going to be a newspaper man for his family.”
Back to Watertown
Johnson started as managing editor at the Watertown Daily Times in August 2018. He got to know the reporters and began working with them on stories on a daily basis. He also dove into the business side of things, playing a major role in key decisions.
In 2019, in an effort to improve the company’s financial situation, publication of the Times was cut to six days a week and several weekly newspapers, including the Ogdensburg Journal, were closed. Five weekly newspapers in Oswego County were consolidated into a single weekly — The Oswego County Weeklies. The papers had been purchased in 2016 and had similar content except for the front pages. Johnson said publishing one newspaper instead of five saved a significant amount during printing.
Johnson oversaw the launching of a new paid website, NY360, that brought all the newspaper titles under one digital landing page. He also encouraged deeper reporting in the newsroom.
His cousin, John B. Johnson, announced in 2019 he was stepping down at year’s end as company CEO and co-publisher of the Times. Alec Johnson’s father, Harold B. Johnson II, who was president and co-publisher, took on the role of CEO.
Alec Johnson was suddenly in charge of the day-to-day operations of the company sooner than he had ever imagined, though he said his family were supportive of his new role as decision-maker.
He was keenly aware of what was working and what wasn’t. Revenue was reasonably good, but costs were up. Johnson said customer service was poor and the Times was plagued by circulation problems. So many carrier routes were down — sometimes 20 to 30 routes went unstaffed and had to be filled by managers — that circulation was reluctant to sell new subscriptions (about $300 a year) for fear there would be no one to deliver the newspapers.
Circulation of the Times was down to roughly 10,000 from more than 30,000 two decades ago.
Johnson wasn’t afraid to make big, sometimes difficult, changes he thought were necessary or to move quickly. Decisions that generations ago might have taken years were made in months.
His strategy was to stabilize the business and then focus on growing it. He dealt with the delivery issues with the Times by setting a goal to have every delivery route filled by the beginning of March 2020, which his team met. That in turn reduced the flood of customer service calls about missed deliveries. The timing turned out to be crucial. A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic battered the company’s revenues.
Circulation revenue helped keep the business afloat as advertisers pulled back. Support from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program was also crucial.
But recovering from the pandemic has still been challenging. Even with revenue on target, rising costs, especially for fuel and newsprint, have been killers, Johnson said. A truckload of newsprint currently costs more than $16,000. Before the pandemic it was closer to $12,000.
The price of the Times was increased about 50 cents earlier this year, but Johnson said there are limits on what readers are willing to pay. Supporting the newspaper on subscription revenue alone would cost more than $1,000 per person, he said.
The newspaper has gained some revenue from adding a paywall to its website a few years ago. Of the website’s 15,000 registered users, more than a thousand are digital subscribers. But that revenue alone would only be enough to sustain a couple reporters, not an entire newsroom.
The bulk of the company’s revenue remains print driven. For example, Johnson said that a print subscription comes with a free digital subscription, but only about 10% of print subscribers have taken advantage.
Last year Johnson brought back the Ogdensburg Journal and another weekly newspaper that had closed. Johnson said originally the hope was that readers would turn to the Times, but that backfired. In fact, people were so mad about the closing that they canceled their subscriptions to the Times.
“And we found in those communities that people realized what they had lost when they lost what they considered their local newspaper,” he said.
He said the Journal is now in a place where it can stand on its own financially.
Much of the company’s revenue growth has come from its contract printing. The company maintains printing presses in Watertown and in Massena. The Watertown press was installed in 1986 and prints standard newspapers such as the Times and the company’s newspapers in the Hudson Valley and Western New York. The Massena press was installed in 2002 and is smaller but capable of printing different sizes.
The company has more than 50 customers including many weekly and student newspapers. As the number of commercial printers has decreased, it has picked up printing work from farther away. It now prints the CNY Business Journal, the Catholic Sun and student newspapers for SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.
‘I’m in this 100%’
Looking to 2023, as the pandemic fades, Johnson believes the best path forward is for the company to reintroduce itself to advertisers and readers with a heavy emphasis on improving the quality of content.
“I believe content is our most important asset,” he said. “If we don’t have the content to sell we don’t have anything.”
When he works with reporters Johnson tries to remind them that just telling a story that’s obvious isn’t enough. The goal is to report news as it develops, but save the more deeply reported story for print. That might involve digging into archives for information to give a story more context. For a recent story about inflation Johnson had reporters find examples of how rising food prices were affecting people.
“We need to report more deeply, we need to uncover things that people don’t know,” he said. “We can’t just be a regurgitation of TV news.”
Each day when Johnson is in his office, whether he’s scrutinizing the previous day’s edition of the Times, looking over newsprint invoices or studying revenue projections, that envelope on the wall is staring back at him as a reminder.
“I’ve got two kids,” he said “I’m in this 100% to make sure there’s a fifth generation if it’s something they want.”
Publications Owned by the Johnson Family
Watertown Daily Times
The Malone Telegram
Daily Mail (Catskill)
The Daily News (Batavia)
Oswego County News
Journal & Republican (Lowville)
Courier-Observer (Massena/ Potsdam)
The Ogdensburg Journal
St. Lawrence Plaindealer
Livingston County News
Jefferson County Pennysaver
Northern New York Business
Northern New York Living
NNY360.com (all north country papers and magazines, except Malone)
thelcn.com (Livingston County News)
hudsonvalley360.com (Register-Star and Daily Mail)
Johnson Family: Over a Century in the Publishing Business
The Watertown Daily Times traces its roots back to the middle of the 19th century and the Johnson family’s association with the newspaper goes back more than a century.
In 1850, Lotus Ingalls, of Rodman, started the weekly New York Reformer. Ingalls had tired of teaching and practicing law and his interest in the temperance movement, support for school reform and opposition to slavery were motivations for starting the newspaper.
With $200 of his own money, and $500 borrowed, he teamed up with a local printer to start the paper. The strong opposition to slavery and liquor proved popular and by 1858 the paper had a circulation of 8,000.
By 1860 Watertown was a bustling village of 6,600 people. That year Beman Brockway purchased a third of the Reformer. He had previously purchased the Oswego Palladium and edited that paper until turning it into a daily and later selling it in 1853. Brockway was a well-known editor and close friend of famed newspaperman Horace Greeley. He had worked on Greeley’s New York Tribune for several years.
With the outbreak of the Civil War the necessity of getting news more quickly grew and the weekly Reformer suffered as the telegraph fueled an emphasis on daily papers. In 1861, it became the Watertown Daily Reformer. It was renamed The Watertown Daily Times in 1870.
The Times suffered financial difficulties in the years following the Civil War. Circulation fell off and the business carried a great deal of debt.
Brockway’s 19-year-old son Henry joined the business office in 1873, making it profitable and increasing circulation, which had dipped to about 3,000-4,000. When the father died ownership of the Times transferred to his two sons and three shareholders. Henry Brockway bought his brother out and ran the paper until his death in 1904. After that, ownership passed to his wife.
Harold B. Johnson was the son of a merchant and postmaster in the North Country. He founded a student newspaper at Gouverneur High School and became a correspondent for the Times during summers. At 16, he began working for the weekly Gouverneur Tribune. He set out for the West in 1900 and worked for newspapers in Portland, Oregon and Helena, Montana, before becoming homesick and returning to Gouverneur where he worked for several local papers.
In 1904, he received a job offer from the Times that paid $14 a week. Three years later he became city editor. In 1911, he purchased stock in the company and shortly thereafter became vice president.
Johnson was elevated to managing editor in 1918 and in 1919 became editor and president of the company. When Henry Brockway’s widow retired from the business in the 1930s Johnson, who had become publisher, purchased her controlling interest in the Brockway Company.
The Times was still a small daily when Johnson gained control, with a circulation of around 5,000. He eventually grew its readership to more than 40,000.
When Johnson died suddenly of a heart attack in 1949 at age 69, his son, John. B. Johnson, was forced to step into his place as editor and publisher. Up until then the 32-year-old had been a reporter and editorial writer, as well as secretary of the Brockway Company.
The company name was changed in 1977 to the Johnson Newspaper Corp. The family had expanded beyond newspapers with investments in radio stations in the 1940s and television in the 1950s. But following a legal battle with the FCC they were forced to divest their radio and television holdings in the early 1980s.
That left the company with money to spend and they expanded their newspaper holdings, starting in 1981 with the purchase of the Batavia Daily News in Western New York.
In 1983 they acquired the Western New York Offset Press, in Lancaster. In 1984, they bought the company that owned the Carthage Republican-Tribune, North Country Courier and Fort Drum Sentinel. Then came the Malone Evening Telegram in 1988, the Catskill Daily Mail and Greene County News in 1989, and the Lowville Journal & Republican in 1990.
In 1997, they purchased 10 newspapers from the former Park Newspapers, covering St. Lawrence and Columbia counties.
John B. Johnson died in 2001 at age 84 and was succeeded by his sons, John B. Johnson Jr. and Harold B. Johnson II.
Alec E. Johnson came on as managing editor in 2018. His cousin, John B. Johnson, announced in 2019 he was stepping down at year’s end as company CEO and co-publisher of the Times. Alec E. Johnson’s father, Harold B. Johnson II, who was president and co-publisher, became CEO.
In January 2020, Alec E. Johnson was named president and chief operations officer. He also serves as editor and publisher of the Times, the fourth generation to hold the position.