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Anita Johnson — writer, publisher, warrior for the free press

Staff Writer | September 19, 2021 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Journalist Anita Johnson, 92, still writes regularly for the Eugene Weekly newspaper. As co-owner and publisher of the alternative publication, she started her illustrious career right here at The Coeur d’Alene Press back in 1946.

Growing up in Coeur d’Alene, Johnson always knew she wanted to write. She worked on the paper published at Coeur d’Alene High School. At that time it was the only high school in a town of about 10,000 people.

“I just really loved it,” Johnson said. “I liked to write and knew I wanted to make a living writing.”

And she has.

During college she worked at The Press during her summers home and on holiday breaks. Her boss was Duane Hagadone’s father, Burl.

Johnson remembers that Chuck Sowder, the editor at the time “wrote most of the paper single-handedly.”

“He was totally amazing,” Johnson said.

Johnson started by covering “little local stories,” which she enjoyed. One of her first assignments was a small plane crash that had happened near Coeur d’Alene. Louise Shadduck, former editor of the Lifestyles section and member of the Idaho Hall of Fame, took her on that assignment.

“There was still a dead body in there,” Johnson said. She recalled it being quite the shock. “I thought, 'I don’t want to do this kind of reporting,'” she said.

Nevertheless, she stuck with it and worked on the University of Oregon student paper, the Daily Emerald.

After college she had an opportunity to join The Washington Post staff. While there she covered “Sunday and Women's” feature stories, mostly written about and for women.

“When I left The Post, the managing editor said, ‘It's too bad you’re leaving. We wanted you to become our expert on Jacqueline Bouvier,’” as President John F. Kennedy was just preparing to propose, she said.

Johnson and her husband, Art, who had been a law student at Harvard, returned to Oregon. The duo connected with Fred Taylor, a former Wall Street Journal editor, and purchased the Eugene Weekly, which the Johnsons still co-own.

The Eugene Weekly is a mixture of alternative and standard journalism, Johnson said.

“It’s a little snarky,” she said.

An ongoing column called the “Slant” is a series of “one-paragraph editorials.” A popular columnist, Johnson is usually responsible for five or six of them weekly.

“People like short takes I think,” she said.

The Eugene Weekly aspires, among many things, to challenge the status quo, ask the hard questions and support “unfettered artistic expression.”

With a lifelong commitment to the art of journalism, Johnson passionately believes investigative journalism is “critical” and that “democracy cannot survive without free press.”

Serving as a voice for the marginalized is one of the publication's most noble goals, she said.

“One thing we’re doing is obituaries for the homeless people dying on the streets of Eugene,” Johnson said. It's an expensive endeavor.

“But we think they’re very important,” she said.

Johnson said about 35 homeless died in Eugene last year, and over 100 in Portland.

The paper gets occasional requests from inmates at Oregon State Prison for subscriptions. When they can’t afford them, the paper often provides them for free, or requests that subscribers donate to help.

The Eugene Weekly recently took first place in cover design and third for news writing in the Oregon Newspaper Association’s annual journalism contest.

And for Johnson herself, she was featured prominently in a recent issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, which named her one of the 15 most influential journalists in the nation over 50 years old.

But at the foundation of it all is the City by the Lake.

“Coeur d’Alene was a wonderful place to grow up,” Johnson said.