With a constantly changing media market in Southern California, Tom Johnson continues to play a key role in journalism shaping Orange County coverage.
Johnson has more than 45 years of experience in the industry spanning multiple outlets, including the Daily Pilot, now published by the Los Angeles Times.
However, when he first moved to Orange County in 1991 to work for the Daily Pilot, he thought he had made the “biggest mistake of [his] life.”
At the time, Johnson was a single parent who didn’t know anyone else in town, while the paper was also down on its luck due to financial strain.
“I committed myself to that paper,” he said.
Tom Johnson (L) and his daughter Ashley Johnson. (Courtesy of Tom Johnson)
This dedication led him to save the Daily Pilot—founded in 1907 as an independent paper originally called the Newport News—through a clever marketing plan, making him ultimately responsible for the paper’s sale to the Los Angeles Times.
According to Johnson, he created the perception that other notable publications wanted to buy the paper.
“The truth is, no one had even made an offer to buy [Daily Pilot],” Johnson said. “I just circulated that story around, and [the Orange County Register] actually ended up making us an offer [as well]!”
His strategy ultimately led to the purchase by the Los Angeles Times in spite of a declining market and plummeting subscriptions—all while thousands of reporters were being laid off across the country.
Then in 2008, Johnson sacrificed his job to save two of his employees, leaving his senior-level position to allow them to keep their jobs amid budget cuts.
Tom Johnson (L) interviews singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Tom Johnson)
One of those employees was a man previously “bullied,” often by a prominent figure at the paper, Johnson said. Once Johnson took charge, he quickly developed a close relationship with the employee.
“After I got promoted I called him into my office and told him he was going to be treated like a valued employee,” Johnson said. “And I meant it.”
His sense of ethics continues to play a key role in his personal and professional life, eventually winning him the Newport Beach “Citizen of The Year” Award in 2011 and a lifetime achievement award from the Orange County Press Club in 2017.
Now a publisher and co-owner of Stu News in Newport Beach, Johnson uses that platform to advocate for those in need.
One example occurred years ago when his coverage helped a homeless family find shelter and provide a Christmas for their young children, thanks to an outpouring of community support following the article.
The community also banded together to provide the family with an additional car and other services, which eventually helped them get back on their feet.
Tom Johnson and granddaughter Kate at Bayside Restaurant, Newport Beach, Calif., in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Tom Johnson)
Stu News is where Johnson sees himself for the foreseeable future reporting on the community, he said.
“It’s not just a job—it’s a lifestyle,” he said, “I’ll probably die someday sitting at my computer putting an issue out, but that will be OK.”
After decades of service, Johnson’s most valued accomplishment, he said, is his two daughters.
“I’m more proud of them than anything,” he said. “They are my legacy.”
His first daughter, Ashley Johnson, is the president and CEO of Visit Laguna Beach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to attracting tourism to the area. Her step-sister, Victoria Dell, works as a cardio-thoracic nurse practitioner at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.
(Courtesy of Tom Johnson)