Ron Johnson leaves job early, student editor highlights his impact

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Me, crying, holding the soccer ball. Ron, also trying to not cry, holding the mock Page One we made for him.

Like many media organizations on college campuses and in the professional world, the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University has been struggling to recover from a decline in print advertising. To ease the financial stress, Director of Student Media Ron Johnson “took a 10 percent pay cut so the IDS could have a little more money,” according to a letter from the editor. “When that wasn’t enough, Johnson announced his resignation effective Jan. 1, 2018, so his salary, of which the IDS pays 75 percent, could continue funding the Daily Student’s operations.”

Sadly, that wasn’t enough either, and Johnson left his position on December 1, 2017 amid controversy, concern and reflection. Outgoing editor in chief Jamie Zega reflects on his legacy at IU and journalism in general.

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This photo is in front of Ernie Pyle’s desk. We took this after our traditional end-of-semester celebration that also, naturally, became Ron’s farewell.
(Note the Indiana Dad sweatshirt)

1. How has Ron’s retirement, and the circumstances surrounding it, affected the IDS? How has it affected you?

To clarify, Ron is not retiring — he’s not done with collegiate journalism. He resigned from this position. Another university is going to be very lucky to have him as an adviser.
As far as the circumstances surrounding the resignation, honestly, it really caused a ruckus with morale. Ron’s initial decision was unfortunate, but we knew we would make it out OK. When our dean asked him to resign a month earlier than intended, that really upset us and scared us, as you might have read here. We’ve had numerous discussions with our dean since then, though, and we’re starting to work together to not only find the next director of IU Student Media, but also ensure the IDS maintains its independence.

Ron’s departure has not had a really direct affect on me yet. It upset me, like it did for others, but I was lucky enough to have Ron’s guidance through the majority of my term as editor-in-chief. I think this spring’s editor will have a significant challenge in adjusting to the post-Ron IDS (and that’s not at all to knock our interim director, but it is going to be objectively different without Ron around).

2. Ron’s influence is felt throughout the college media world. How has having a professional like that as your adviser benefited you?
Having Ron as an adviser has benefitted me (and the IDS as a whole) in countless ways. Knowing him means knowing almost every other adviser in college media, and thus knowing their paper/website/yearbook. We’re always looking for inspiration from other papers and to see what they’re doing that we aren’t or how they’re doing something that we could be doing better. Although we usually reach out on our own, it’s nice to have that name recognition. Unrelated but semirelated, at my internship this summer we had coffee/lunch buddies with the other interns. My buddy and I met for the first time and I said I went to IU and she goes, “Oh, that’s Ron Johnson’s school!” This girl was originally from California, goes to school at Harvard and still knew who Ron was from some high school work that he did.

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Ron after last spring’s end-of-semester celebration with various EICs. From left, me (Fall 2017), Michael Williams (Summer 2017), Ron, Alison Graham (Fall 2016), Hannah Alani (Spring 2017).

He’ll deny it, but he’s literally a celebrity for just about any organization he’s been a part of — IHSPA (Ind. high school press), ACP/CMA, JEA/NSPA, SND. He’s basically a national treasure.

3. What is your favorite memory of working with Ron?
My honest-to-god favorite memory with Ron was our brunch in Dallas the last day of ACP/CMA. The conference was great to attend and I learned a lot, but I also loved being able to spend time with Ron and our yearbook editor. Capping that off with the best brunch buffet I’d ever seen in my life was too perfect.

But actually working with Ron … I think my favorite memory was when I was named editor-in-chief. Once the board has made its decision, Ron (or the director at the time) will bring the candidate(s) into his office to tell them the result before introducing the new editor to the rest of the newsroom. I ran unopposed, so Ron only had to bring me into his office and tell me that the board had decided to select me. Once he did, he gave me a big hug, grabbed my hands, told me he was so happy for me and that he knew I’d do a good job. That was one of the most validating experiences I’ve had in my time with the IDS. I knew there were probably peers of mine who weren’t thrilled that I would be leading the paper, but to have Ron’s approval was really the only seal of approval I needed.

4. What will you miss most about Ron?

5. What will you miss least? :)
(yes, I skipped 4, but I’ll get back to it!) Kind if continuing the thought from my previous answer, the thing I’ll miss the least will probably be the constant worry of whether or not Ron liked what we did. We always could look forward to/dread passing that morning’s paper next to his office, marked up with Ron’s criticisms, corrections, critiques and praise on each page. Blue pen for words, red pen for design/visuals. From writers to designers to editors, everyone cringed a little before opening the paper to see what he had to write. They’d nod if he was right about a criticism, or smile at the praise they’d received. That’s one way that even those who didn’t work with Ron still got to know him.

So basically I just did something I never do and turned what was supposed to be a negative thing into a positive! There’s not much I won’t miss about Ron. Just the fear of failure that perpetually exists and the feeling of coming into the newsroom after class to find that the dinner he surprised everyone with was gone before you could even have some.

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The two of us hugging after presenting him with his gifts from the staff. In this one, he’s holding an IU soccer ball signed by all of us. I’m not sure about soccer as a whole, but Ron really loved IU soccer.

4. What will you miss most about Ron?

What I’ll probably miss most about Ron …. a lot. Obviously he’s kind and caring and all that other stuff that you say about anyone you like. I guess what I’ll miss most is his presence in the newsroom. Most of the newsroom could probably say he’s a bit of a father figure to them in some way, but for me it’s double. As editor-in-chief I worked with him the closest this semester and spent a lot of time with him. Even further (and deeper, honestly), I never met my father. I never really had many male role models to look up to, and father figures were as close as I was going to get to an actual father.

Ron was always there when I needed him. If I was just having a rough day, he’d give me a hug and a reminder that we’d make it through the semester. When I was putting too much time into work and falling behind in my classes, he nudged me to kind of get it together. Before we left for the semester break, he and his husband had my boyfriend and me over for dinner. But what’s possibly the thing that was most telling and what I won’t forget was when he made me borrow a coat.

Long story short, I never was able to retrieve my winter coat from my mom’s house before the cold hit in early November. One particularly cold day I was discussing said lack of coat with Ron and said I’d be fine and just layer up a ton until Thanksgiving Break when I’d go home and get my coat.

He left for a little while and came back for a meeting with the yearbook staff. Of course, I was still in the building and meeting with our newsroom adviser, Ruth Witmer. Ron pokes his head into her office and says “there’s a coat on the chair in your office. Wear it.” and walks away.

It seems small and kind of dumb, but seriously, what other staff member at IU would do that? If I had asked, I’m sure there’d be a few. But not many would come and say “wear this until you get your own coat.”

Ron has probably won the “Best Dad” staff award just about every semester he’s been here. Aside from the literal “well no one else on staff has children!”, I don’t think anyone else is more worthy.

6. As Indiana moves forward finding a new adviser, what qualities are you hoping that new person possesses?

The next director of IU Student Media needs a lot of things. Our Media School has formed a search committee to find the next director, and just in forming the search committee, a lot of people have a lot of thoughts as to what qualities the next director needs to possess. I think the biggest one is the dedication to the success of student journalism. Without that, the other qualities don’t matter. We need someone who will guide us, help us, and be there for us. I won’t be around when the new director’s tenure begins, but as long as they show their dedication to maintaining the standard of excellence of IU Student Media, I’ll feel comfortable with the pick.

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A final staff photo after the celebration, featuring Ron way in the back, haha.

7. Anything else you want to add?

Basically, like I said before, Ron Johnson is a national treasure. Although it hurts to see him leave under the circumstances in which he did, I wish him nothing but the best in his move to Missouri and his job search going forward. Any university will be lucky and, frankly, privileged to have him backing its student publications.

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