SIPA Member Profile: Johnston Finds True Contentment

Don Johnston, Senior Vice President/Group Publisher, AHC Media, Atlanta

What was your first job out of college and how did you get into this business?
I was fortunate that my college newspaper, the Daily Californian in Berkeley, existed as an independent business operation. To a degree greater than a lot of college towns, the city and the university were deeply intertwined. I covered the city for the Daily Cal, all the basics like city council meetings, school board, police and fire, tons of feature stuff. I was a professional; I got paid. Then, after graduating, I was able to catch on with the San Francisco Examiner as a full-time correspondent in the East Bay, covering Berkeley and Oakland. That was how I got started in journalism and publishing, and I’ve really never done anything else.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.
Let me mention two. The first was coming to AHC in 1989. I had worked both as a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor up until that point. I was good at both but never was going to be great at either. By contrast, I found that the symbiotic relationship of content and business in the newsletter industry truly suited me, and I have prospered here. Four years after joining AHC, I got involved in the acquisition and integration of two groups of publications, one in biotechnology and one in medical technology. This became AHC’s Bio Group and I was named its publisher. That was the second defining moment. It was a baptism by fire. The total and immediate immersion in the business end of things—marketing, budgeting, strategy, P&Ls—transformed me from an executive editor into a publisher.

In brief, describe your business/company?
We are a multimedia information, training and solutions company serving the healthcare industry. We have online news services like BioWorld Today and Medical Device Daily and terrific monthly or twice-monthly print and online products like Emergency Medicine Reports. We do webinars. We publish books. We are a prolific provider of continuing education for physicians and nurses. Our founding newsletter, Hospital Infection Control & Prevention, is still going strong. Formerly a part of Thomson, or “Thomson without a p,” as we call it, we have been since 2006 a wholly-owned unit of the Thompson Media Group LLC, headquartered in Washington.

What are two or three important concepts or rules that have helped you to succeed in business?
a. Don’t ever be afraid of taking on more responsibility. You want to move up? That’s how.
b. It’s more important that bad news gets communicated up the line than good news. Good news is great, everybody loves to hear it, but you have a responsibility to deliver the bad news first because it usually requires action.
c. I read this in a professional questionnaire similar to this once and really liked it: Be results oriented rather than activity oriented. Plenty of people are unbelievably busy—just ask them—yet get little done.
d. Communicate – with your customers, your contacts and your colleagues down the hall.

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing now?
I always focus, given my background and main responsibility—both editorial—on the content. We’re doing a good job of understanding the information needs of our markets and delivering solid, valuable content to them. Just like our business, the industries we cover change constantly, so we can’t get complacent or assume we know things about our market that we don’t. We also need web development colleagues who can deliver our content in a way that is convenient and intuitive to users and a marketing and sales team that can hammer home the message, through whatever channels will work, that the content is indispensable and worth every penny.

Do you see a trend or path that you have to lock onto for 2011?
Like a lot of one-time traditional print publishers, we are moving as aggressively as possible to become a majority online company. That strategy will continue. We’ve embraced social media as an integral piece of that, which is what I’ve been asked to speak about at the SIPA conference in June. As my staff will tell you, Don is a Twitter addict. (See @BioWorld @MedDevicesDaily @HICprevent @JohnstonDon…)

What are the key benefits of SIPA membership for you and your team?
I went to my first SIPA meeting in 1992. I still have the business cards I collected and my notes! One of the people I met who presented at that meeting was Jim Sinkinson. Hotline featured him in this space a few weeks back. As I read Jim’s comments, I felt like, to this day, I could call him and others whom I met at that first meeting to get feedback on a particular business challenge. To me, that captures the essence of SIPA—that generosity of spirit. Also, you realize YOU ARE NOT ALONE in obsessing about the minutiae that fills your business days.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in upstate New York, in Buffalo, but I grew up in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y. My father was a writer and editor who became a teacher and my mother was a teacher who became a writer. So all of this, including speaking at SIPA, is in my blood.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
My college days began at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., a terrific little school, but not the right place for me. I needed something bigger, in a more urban environment. I took a year off after my sophomore year and traveled around America. My travels eventually took me to Cal—the University of California, Berkeley—which was absolutely the right place for me. I returned to New York a few years later and got my master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. What really resonates with me looking back was how energizing both places were to begin a journalism career. There is always something going on in Berkeley and you won’t find a better journalism lab in the world than New York City.

Are you married? Do you have children?
I am married to the wonderful Diane Johnston. Last year was our 30th anniversary. We have two children: Katie, who has embarked on a marketing career, and Jeremy, who will graduate from college in May.

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?
Music is probably my greatest diversion, although I don’t play a note. If I could swing it, I’d go to a different live show once a week. I saw Leo Kottke, the quirky but brilliant guitarist, a few weeks ago, and Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s band, Furthur. They were sensational. I have also spent a lot of time in the outdoors in my life—camping, backpacking and canoeing—but not lately. And I am an insatiable tourist. I’ll go anywhere.

Is there a book you recently read or movie you saw that you would recommend?
I read almost exclusively fiction. Novels feed a part of me that another non-fiction book of facts or theories won’t. I like Richard Russo, Elizabeth Berg, Nick Hornby, Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, Francisco Goldman. I’ve been rereading Kurt Vonnegut. I am two-sixths of the way through Jane Austen. Having said all that, though, I just spent a month with “Life,” the autobiography of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. It was funny, honest and fascinating. He wrote at one point about the thrill of meeting other musicians, picking up tips, techniques, riffs and ideas. It wasn’t a competitive thing. He called it “expanding my club.” I’m not just saying this because I happen to be filling out Ronn’s questionnaire for SIPAlert Daily, but when I read that I immediately thought of SIPA.

Additional comments?
Just thanks to the four people who gave this the once-over before I hit “Send.”


As he mentioned, Don will be very “social” at
SIPA’s upcoming International Conference,
co-leading the session: Getting Social: How Your
Content Should Be Leveraged on Social Media

SIPA 2011: Cashing in on Content –
Models for a New Decade.

June 5-7, Capital Hilton, Washington, D.C.
Register now to get the best rate and hear from
Don and many other highly-valued spealers!

Download a FREE copy of 7 Ways to Monetize your Portal Audience, and discover how today's top publishers are generating revenue through memberships, events, clubs, sponsorships, and more.


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