After more than 15 years as a reporter, Linton Johnson sought a challenge. He found just that in the comms department of Bay Area Rapid Transit, where he works toward the public good.
Linton Johnson, a veteran, Emmy-award-winning journalist, decided last year to leave his anchor position at NBC affiliate KNTV and take the number-two communications position at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which serves four counties in the San Francisco Bay area.
Having covered transportation, the transition was "natural." Johnson excelled right away and was promoted in less than six months to chief spokesman and manager of media and public affairs when Michael Healy, who had been the only person in BART's history to helm communications, retired.
"Mike was 'Mr. BART,'" Johnson says. "Being the voice and face of an agency since its inception is amazing. It's an honor [to succeed him]. I'm proud to carry on the tradition of being open, honest, and accessible with reporters."
BART was conceived in 1946 by business and civic leaders. Service began in 1972, and today average weekday ridership is 317,000. The system is overseen by an elected board of nine directors.
"It's a complex organization and a complex job," Healy says. "It's highly political. You're in the middle of everything, and everybody is watching. You must be as honest as possible and still remain an advocate. That's a delicate balance, but Linton had the potential to pick it up quickly. He's energetic, smart, affable, and very talented."
One of Johnson's biggest challenges has been "those stories you don't want reported." Citing a recent safety issue, he says, "We probably prevented a terrorist attack by helping a news agency understand that reporting [it] would have been reckless and dangerous."
He's gearing up for labor negotiations in August. "If we can get through it in a dignified way, or certainly in the most respectful way possible, I think that will be my greatest accomplishment," Johnson says.
Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates, knew Johnson as a "very successful and tough" reporter, and he sat on the independent job interview panels that recommended Johnson be hired and promoted at BART.
"Healy had the biggest shoes to fill in the public information business in Northern California," Singer says. "Linton so distinguished himself, it was clear that he would be the very best person. He's done an exemplary job. He's tamped down stories, he's put out a lot of fires, and he's quickly gained a great deal of credibility - not just with the media, but with the public."
After 15-plus years as a journalist, Johnson wanted a challenge. "I could do the job with my eyes closed - it was simple and meaningless," he says. "I love that I learn something new all the time [at BART]. I have to think strategically and deal with real-life situations. Everything I do deals with the public good."
Johnson knew that working for BART would allow him to communicate meaningful information, which he says journalism, particularly TV reporting, is losing sight of.
"Journalists like to mock PR people," he says. "I think they do it as a cover because they realize what they're doing doesn't have a lot of meaning. Especially TV journalists - they are just as much spin doctors as PR people [are sometimes accused of being]. They want to feel more honorable when, in fact, in order to get ratings, you spin it the other way. You want to make it as dramatic as possible because that sells.
"The word 'journalism' sounds honorable, but I think it's losing honor, mostly because of TV news," he continues. "Most TV journalists want to live up to the capital 'J' journalism, [but they're under] pressure to keep their jobs. [Stories] meant only for ratings have nothing to do with journalism. As a public information officer, you're on the other side, and hopefully the story comes out somewhere in the middle."
The president of NBC unwittingly dissuaded Johnson from staying in journalism by telling him he would have a job for life. "To most reporters, that's probably a dream come true," Johnson says, "but I realized it wouldn't give me what I want out of life. I'd moved 17 times. I have a husband. I knew I would not be able to enjoy my new house and my life. I decided to get out. It was shocking to everyone, including me, [but now,] I can't imagine going back."
Singer was surprised, but happy that Johnson wanted to work in PR. "He was the consummate newsman," Singer says. "He covered so many breaking stories. He was the first guy on the scene and the last guy to leave. When news runs that thick in the blood, it's surprising to see someone leave journalism. It's exceptionally pleasing to have him want to join PR because he brings honor and credibility to what we do."
Johnson is also well-liked within BART. "He trusts those who work for him," says Jim Allison, BART public information officer. "Trust extends the other way, too. It's easy to work for him."
Aaron Weinstein, BART manager of marketing and research, values Johnson's partnership. "We'll invite him to brainstorm, and it's not common for us to ask someone outside our department to sit in," he says. "He helps us leverage our marketing investment. He [has] genuine enthusiasm for improving transit and quality of life in the Bay Area."
"He knows what reporters look for and the best way to give it to them," says Catherine Westphall, community relations manager for BART's earthquake safety program. "He's really open to sharing knowledge with organizations that may not have had the experience he's had. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute approached BART about a [transbay] tube tour, and he was quite open about sharing his knowledge. They have ongoing PR work, and he's been helpful to them since."
Indeed, it seems that BART isn't the sole beneficiary of Johnson's decision to leave journalism.
"If our profession is able to recruit individuals with Linton's caliber of intelligence and professionalism, PR has a great future," Singer says.
Chief spokesman and manager of media and public affairs, BART
February 2004-June 2004
Public information officer II, BART
January 2000-January 2004
Weekend evening news anchor, KNTV-TV, San Francisco
January 2000-April 2002
Weekend evening news anchor, KBWB-TV, San Francisco
General assignment reporter at three television stations:
KSNT-TV, Topeka, KS (1994-1995);
KAKE-TV, Wichita, KS (1995-1996);
KSDK-TV, St. Louis (1996-1999)