Kenneth P. Johnson, 74; Trailblazing News Editor

Johnson led the Dallas Times Herald in the creation of a morning edition.
Johnson led the Dallas Times Herald in the creation of a morning edition. (AP)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kenneth P. Johnson, 74, a former editor and vice president at The Washington Post and executive editor of the old Dallas Times Herald during one of the last big newspaper wars in American journalism, has died.

Mr. Johnson, who also became a multimillionaire after investing in a chain of small newspapers, died Nov. 2 at a hospital in Dallas. He had a heart infection and complications from throat cancer.

As The Post's vice president of operations, Mr. Johnson was in charge of production, data processing, development planning and budgeting. In 1971, he took on additional duties working with Project X, a plan to train nonunion white-collar business employees to run the printing presses in case production employees went out on strike.

The emergency procedures were put to the test in the fall of 1973 when printers struck and the pressmen respected their picket line. Mr. Johnson helped lead newly trained executives and managers through the complicated process of creating a newspaper.

A major press operators' strike occurred in the fall of 1975, and it was because of preparations Mr. Johnson helped set in place that white-collar employees were able to put out the newspaper in a dispute lasting several months.

Former Post publisher Katharine Graham described Mr. Johnson as "a valued friend and colleague with whom I went through a lot."

Mr. Johnson had been lured to Dallas as the Times Herald's executive editor around the time of The Post's press operators' strike. He brought with him a reputation as a tough, chain-smoking newspaperman with a penchant for chewing out reporters and chasing hard news.

He was considered an ideal candidate to help the Times Herald -- purchased in 1970 by the Times Mirror company of Los Angeles -- prepare an also-ran afternoon paper for battle against the dominant Morning News.

Making aggressive local news coverage a priority, Mr. Johnson hired 100 new staffers, added new sections on fashion and travel, opened new international bureaus and started a morning edition to challenge the Morning News. Among the notables and future notables he hired were columnist Molly Ivins, drive-in movie reviewer John Bloom (a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs) and reporter Bill Keller, now executive editor of the New York Times. Circulation went up by 80,000 in two years, to 280,000.

Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus of communication at Southern Methodist University, recalled that Mr. Johnson and his managing editor, Will Jarrett, both newcomers to the city, "had none of the long-time ties to the local establishment honored by both the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald. The old sacred cows disappeared. Sensitive matters were brought into the open."

The locally owned Morning News fought back with a renewed commitment to local news coverage. "Dallas soon saw a newspaper war of epic proportions in which the winners were the readers," Payne said.

The Times Herald won two Pulitzer Prizes for photography during Mr. Johnson's tenure, which lasted until 1983. The Morning News's owner, the Belo Corp., bought its rival in 1991 and shut it down.

Kenneth Parker Johnson was born Aug. 24, 1934, in Huntington, W.Va., and graduated from high school in Bristol, Tenn. He attended what is now East Tennessee State University while working at the Bristol newspaper, where he became night editor. He was managing editor of the Savannah Morning News before joining The Post in 1966 as night city editor.

After his Dallas tenure, he and Jarrett founded Westward Communications with each making a $50,000 investment, and they acquired more than 50 small daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Colorado, Louisiana and Arkansas. They sold the company to a group of Ohio investors in 1997 for more than $80 million, according to estimates.

In retirement after the sale of his company, Mr. Johnson played golf and cruised the Atlantic and the Caribbean on his yacht, the Red Baron.

His marriages to Gail Mynatt Johnson and Bernice Johnson ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Margaret Vandervalk Johnson of Dallas; a son from his first marriage, Clay Zeigler of Dallas; two children from his second marriage, Kenneth Johnson Jr. of Anderson, S.C., and Elizabeth Partl of Summerville, S.C.; a son from his third marriage, Jarrett Johnson of Rowlett, Tex.; a brother; and three grandchildren.

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