Ask the Publisher: Who’s on first? Defining our roles in the newsrooms

Samantha Johnston
The Aspen Times
Samantha Johnston
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

What does a publisher even do?

The easiest way to think of a publisher is similar to a CEO. My responsibilities include making major decisions on behalf of The Aspen Times, managing our overall operations and resources, developing long-term vision and strategy, ensuring our financial success, human resources, negotiating vendor contracts and, as frequently as the other items on the list, cleaning out the science experiment that is our refrigerator. I like to say that I do whatever needs to be done on any given day; sometimes it’s working on a huge marketing partnership and sometimes it’s running to Paradise Bakery to get coffee when we’re out.

In the hierarchy of the operation, the publisher oversees the entire operation while the editor oversees the newsroom, the advertising director oversees the advertising/marketing department and the circulation director oversees all newspaper distribution operations.

What does the editor do?

The editor is the journalist who oversees the day-to-day operations and short-term and long-term planning in the newsroom. He (in our case) is responsible for story and photo assignments, writing and reporting coaching, determining which local stories and photos are placed on what pages throughout the paper, contracting with columnists, managing the editorial board and opinion pages and determining which stories we publish and which ones we don’t. The editor is almost always the first person to read a story before it prints; an editor typically reads the story first for content — is it coherent, interesting, comprehensive and does it answer more questions than it creates? This is where coaching and writing support happens; it’s the point in the process where the editor asks questions of the reporter and seeks to have the reporter improve the story in any way possible. While the editor clearly looks for grammar and spelling mistakes, his first job is to make sure the reporter wrote a great story. When that is complete, the story moves to a copy editor who reads it thoroughly for punctuation, grammar, spelling and AP Style. The copy editors also are a second check on how clear and compelling the story is; if they don’t understand something, chances are our readers won’t, either.

He also oversees our digital engagement editor, Aspen Times Weekly and Snowmass Sun editors and is ultimately responsible for the editorial success of our magazine portfolio (though we have a total superstar in Andrew Travers who oversees our magazine editor/writer teams).

Can the publisher keep a story out of the paper or make sure a story gets into the paper?

In theory, yes. The publisher is the leader of the operation. In practice — at least at The Aspen Times — the relationship between me and editor David Krause is one of collaboration and communication. I have never directed David and his team to write a specific story or to make sure a specific story didn’t run. Occasionally, readers will comment on social media or in letters to the editor that we do or don’t write stories based on whether the story is about a big advertiser. How easy it would be to determine our news coverage based on what our advertisers wanted. The truth is, it’s simply not the case. The news team determines news coverage in complete independence from the advertising department. It’s not to say that the advertising department doesn’t make story suggestions to the newsroom, but every story is written based on its news value.

Make no mistake, I often suggest story ideas, too. I’m in the community a lot engaging in different organizations and I often have ideas about topics I think will interest our readers. Sometimes my ideas are assigned as stories and sometimes they aren’t. A little fact about me: I love bears. LOVE bears. I pitch a bear story a day to reporter Jason Auslander who mostly rolls his eyes at me, but the days when bears are legitimately newsworthy are my favorite days.

Does the publisher read every story before it publishes?

I am often asked if I read every story before it prints. That’s a firm no. I have a really talented editorial team whom I trust explicitly. However, before we publish stories that we know will be very sensitive, the editor and I review the story, talk about it, and hash through the details to ensure we’re both comfortable with the finished product. I’ll also occasionally be asked to read a story that may have elements whose value we question. An example might be something from a court file that is interesting, but we question if it is necessary. Ultimately, the more we talk through our decisions before they are final, the more confident we are in the decision after it is in print.

Special thanks to our reader who noticed in my last column that I said “less than” when I should have said “fewer than.” For you grammar and AP Style junkies, that’s a painful mistake. And then I’ll be damned if we didn’t make the same mistake in a headline not a week later.

Does the publisher have to have a journalism degree?

A reader asked me whether it was a requirement of the position that I have a journalism degree. The answer is no. While I have no scientific data to back up what I’m about to say (the reason they don’t let me be a reporter), I would argue that most publishers don’t have a journalism degree; they usually come up through the ranks on the business/advertising side.

I just happen to have a B.A. in technical journalism. I wanted to be a technical writer — those people who take instructions for how to put a dresser from Ikea together and write them into a way that is actually usable for the poor sot who has to read those instructions to assemble. Thank goodness the first job I got out of college was working for my hometown newspaper, the Steamboat Pilot & Today. There’s no place I’d rather be than in one of the most important industries on Earth — the news.

Samantha Johnston has been the publisher of The Aspen Times since 2014. If you have a question for her on how our operation works, she can be reached at