At 23, budding journalist Chuck Johnson had his eye on a big assignment: covering the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, which would draft a new state Constitution and change the course of history for his beloved state.
“I think attending and covering the opening days would be invaluable for me, and if money is a problem, I’d gladly work for peanuts,” he wrote in a letter to Helena Associated Bureau Chief Paul Freeman, pitching himself to cover the convention full-time for AP. “Despite [someone’s] view that the convention is likely to be dull, I can hardly wait.”
Johnson got the job, of course — launching what would become a journalism career spanning five decades, all in Montana, and spent almost entirely covering politics and state policy from the state capital, his hometown.
Johnson, 74, died unexpectedly last weekend, and was found dead March 5 of natural causes at his Helena home after he failed to show up for dinner at his brother-in-law’s house.
He not only covered the state and its politics more thoroughly than perhaps any reporter in its history, but also mentored and inspired scores of other reporters who covered state government and Montana.
“He’s one of those guys where, if you hadn’t met him, your life might have turned out differently,” says Dave Fenner, who worked with Johnson in Helena in the 1990s and went on to a long career as an editor in New York. “There’s a select few people in my life that put me in a different direction and their influence stays with you forever. Chuck was one of those.”
Johnson worked 43 years as a full-time reporter, working at or leading the Helena bureaus for Lee Newspapers and the Great Falls Tribune for most of that time. He retired in 2015 after Lee closed its bureau and laid him off, but returned to the Capitol in 2017 to cover the Legislature for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
At the time of his death, he was chair of the board of Montana Free Press, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has become a leading source of political coverage in the state.
Those who worked closely with and knew Johnson during his lengthy career said he embodied a unique combination of toughness, historical knowledge, love for Montanans and Montana and dedication to his craft and his colleagues.
Yet, above all, colleagues said they remembered his simple decency in how he treated them and the people he covered.
“Despite having this big reputation, it was cool to find out he was just this kind of really nice guy,” says Kathleen McLaughlin, a journalist and author from Butte, who worked with Johnson at the Lee Newspapers bureau. “A lot of journalists are walking egos. He wasn’t like that.”
Within that nice-guy persona, however, was a burning ambition to cover the big stories that meant the most to Montana.
In his one-page pitch to cover the 1972 Constitutional Convention, Johnson already had a detailed game plan. He proposed a series of articles previewing the convention’s likely big issues, weekend summaries of the action, and polling of the delegates before they came to Helena to draft the new document to identify key issues.
At the time, he was a 23-year-old graduate student at University of Montana, working on a master’s degree in history — and willing to ditch his studies to cover the convention.
Once he got the job, his AP boss would often tell him he was spending too much time covering the convention, staying at the Capitol well into the evening.
Sarah Vowell, an author and historian in Bozeman who worked with Johnson on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the state Constitution last year, believes his gavel-to-gavel coverage of the convention was a roadmap for the rest of his career.
“It informed not just the rest of Chuck’s career; it informed his democratic spirit,” she says. “He was curious about every Montanan. That carried into his reporting, and it comes from watching this group of random Montanans frame a Constitution.”
Within two years of the Con Con job, Johnson was a reporter for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, which served four of the state’s top daily papers, in Billings, Missoula, Butte and Helena. When Lee closed the bureau in 1977, he joined the Great Falls Tribune’s Capitol Bureau.
Tom Kotynski, who worked with Johnson at the Capitol Bureau as a reporter and editor, said Johnson had a knack for recognizing big stories and covering them thoroughly.
In the 1980 gubernatorial campaign between Republican Jack Ramirez and Democrat Ted Schwinden, Ramirez brought in an outside consultant who produced a series of attack ads. Montana hadn’t seen that style of campaigning before, Kotynski says.
“In the past, you pretty much had local consultants,” he says. “It changed the whole landscape.”
Johnson jumped on the story immediately, Kotynski says, covering the ads and profiling the consultant.
“I remember Ted [Schwinden] was furious with us, arguing that by giving press to those ads, you gave those ads a double-shot,” Kotynski recalls. “But Chuck identified that style of campaigning … and things were never the same.”
Kotynski says Johnson brought another style of coverage to Montana campaigns, insisting on doing lengthy, magazine-style profiles of the candidates in major races. Soon, other reporters in the state followed suit, including “on-the-road” profiles of candidates, when they would spend a day with candidates on the campaign trail.
McLaughlin recalls another time when Johnson didn’t follow the pack on a big story.
After Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was found living near Lincoln and arrested in 1996, Johnson didn’t rush to join other reporters interviewing Lincoln residents. Instead, he checked county property tax records and found the location of Kaczynski’s cabin and got the first photo of the rustic wood shack.
“Chuck just had a cool way of looking at a story,” she says. “He would always find a way to get a different and interesting angle on it.”
Friends and colleagues say his coverage was grounded in what he thought Montanans should know and what most affected them, because of his affection for the state and the people who live here.
James Grady, a Johnson classmate at UM who went on to a long career as a novelist, says in the mid-1970s Johnson had an offer to work for muckraking national columnist Jack Anderson — and turned it down.
“He had a chance to be a journalist reaching millions, and he chose instead to stay and work in the state he loved and do the best job covering Montana,” Grady says.
Johnson often zeroed in on dense, complex subjects that he felt would have lasting effects on the future of Montana and its citizens, colleagues recall: clean-air standards and the development of the Colstrip power plants, the Public Service Commission and its regulation of electric and natural gas rates, or the state budget.
But in addition to his reporting chops, Johnson quietly carved out a reputation as someone who would defend and foster good journalism in the state.
In 2005, Jennifer McKee was a reporter working alongside Johnson at the Lee Newspapers State Bureau when they began investigating connections between Montana U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
National publications had broken some stories initially, but McKee and Johnson started looking more closely at lobbying records and soon had their own series of damning stories, with McKee, at age 29, taking the lead.
Burns had a field office in the same Helena building as the Lee bureau, and at least one time came into the newspaper office demanding McKee be taken off the story. Johnson would listen, but ignored his request, McKee says, and the stories continued.
“Chuck and I never had a conversation, that ‘I’ve got your back,’” she says. “It was just known. … If he had to take time thinking it through, he never mentioned it to me as a reporter.”
Steve Prosinski, who at the time was editor at Burns’ hometown paper, the Billings Gazette — a Lee newspaper — says complaints about Chuck’s work never went very far because of his reputation for fairness and integrity.
“He was able to give me so much confidence that the State Bureau was in good hands,” he says. “It was nothing you would worry about, as an editor.”
The Montana Constitution, up close and personal
When 100 delegates gathered in 1972 to create a new Constitution for Montana, reporter Chuck Johnson had a front-row seat to history in the making. Here’s his recollection of that Montana milestone — and what it’s meant for the state in the half-century since — in Chuck’s own words.
Prosinski and others say that integrity flowed not only from his reputation for thoroughness on the facts, but also his kind and humble demeanor.
“It takes a certain amount of assertiveness and courage and aggression, all the time, to be a reporter,” McKee says. “It takes some grit. Chuck obviously had all of those things, but you never saw the ugly side of it.”
Kotynski says even the targets of tough stories by Johnson couldn’t help but respect him, because he’d treat them fairly.
Some of the only criticism Kotynski heard of Johnson came from those who thought he was too nice, and not hard enough on people who deserved it. Kotynski says he defended Johnson against those charges.
“The thing about Chuck was, he had access, because he was fair,” he says. “Our generation of the Watergate era, we thought we had to be hard-edged. Chuck taught me a lesson: Kindness counts. It helps with your balance.”
And while Johnson had become a star in Montana journalism, you’d never know it from being around him, colleagues say.
Sally Mauk, senior news analyst for Montana Public Radio, recruited Johnson to be on a new radio show at the turn of the century: “Capitol Talk,” on which he and fellow Capitol reporter Mike Dennison would parse the week’s events during the Legislature, and, later, analyze campaigns.
Johnson’s laid-back presence made the show an instant hit, says Mauk, who hosted the show, and still does, now with other reporters and analysts.
“He talked in a way that was calming to people,” she says. “One person called him ‘soothingly authoritative.’
“He wasn’t full of himself. He wasn’t trying to convince you of anything. He just presented what he knew in a confident way. But he was not afraid to say he didn’t know if he didn’t know.”
Johnson’s good will also resonated with fellow reporters, especially younger colleagues that he encouraged, helped or hired.
Fenner, the former Lee Bureau reporter, says Johnson didn’t “hog all the best stories” and often assigned his underlings high-profile pieces; McLaughlin says he “treated me as a regular reporter” rather than an intern.
He also hired many young, female reporters, when the political-news profession had been dominated by men. But McKee says she doesn’t think Johnson went out of his way to hire women reporters.
“My sense with Chuck was, he didn’t care if you were a woman,” she says. “The [University of Montana] J School was graduating more women. … If you were the best reporter, you were going to get the job.”
While Johnson had his last full-time reporting job in 2017, he wasn’t finished with Montana journalism, or history.
He had a “pretty triumphant last year of life,” Vowell says, with public appearances around the state in 2022, talking about the 50th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention and his role in covering it.
He also had joined the board of Montana Free Press and became board chair in 2021. The Friday before he died, Johnson had spent several hours meeting with a potential donor for the nonprofit news outlet.
Tresa Smith, a Boulder-area rancher, fellow Free Press board member and longtime friend of Johnson’s, says he was optimistic about the future of journalism in Montana, despite the financial woes of traditional media — and that’s why he became involved with the nonprofit, online organization.
“Montana Free Press is a unique model of where the press is going right now, reaching new audiences, and he was concerned about the preservation of a free press,” she says. “I think he saw that as a horse to ride, a way that you could really make a decent future, through an outfit like that. …
“I think he loved Montana, like so many of us do. I mean, he could have been a top reporter anywhere.”
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