David Johnson is not a man of original ideas. If he were, he says, he would be a novelist, not a newspaper reporter living on a remote ranch. But his one inspiration has caught on in this slightly obscure corner of the world.
Every week for the past 14 years, Johnson, 50, has written a front page column for the Lewiston Morning Tribune featuring a person chosen at random from telephone books in the newspaper’s circulation area, in central Idaho and Eastern Washington.
Called “Everyone Has a Story,” the columns prove how all types of people can blossom under the blessing of focused attention: a 6-year-old boy anticipating Christmas; one of the last full-blooded members of Nez Perce tribe; a fellow who traps muskrats in sewage lagoons, or the high school sophomore here who wants to become a rodeo queen.
Johnson has written of an elderly couple whose aches and pains made them too tired to spit, let alone want to live; a woman whose husband ran a hose from the exhaust pipe of his pickup truck into the cab and died to the sound of country music three weeks earlier; a newborn baby who made the column after screaming in the background of Johnson’s phone call; and a couple whose daughter-inlaw drowned their granddaughter, thinking the baby was possessed by demons. The child is buried in their back yard.
“This is their one shot,” Johnson said of his subjects. “I’ve seen a man go out and get a new cowboy hat just for it.”
Johnson, who carries three pens in his shirt pocket, got his idea when he began reporting in Idaho, driving 30,000 miles a year between what he calls “the little hintertowns.” He figured everyone there had a story. He raised the phone book idea at the Daily Idahonian, but his editor did not take him up on it.
Then in 1984, while working for the Tribune, he met Charles Kuralt, the CBS News reporter famous for his “On the Road” dispatches, at a local journalism symposium.
“He started talking about how he got into doing stories about people who make big balls of string,” Johnson said. “He’d be flying across the U.S. for a news event, and he’d look at the lights below and say, ‘You know, we’re flying over the best stories.’ I told him about the phone book idea, and he said, ‘That’s one of the best ideas I ever heard.’ One of my editors overheard that, and three weeks later I was doing the column.”
Johnson now does a few columns ahead if he goes on vacation. “My biggest fear was somebody was going to take it over and do a better job,” he said.
The Palouse is not an area where a journalist can work from press releases. The steep, undulating hills continue for 30 to 60 miles, waiting for “million-dollar rains,” which can push wheat production up to 150 bushels an acre. Homes, towns and major breaking news stories are all far apart.
Johnson said he saw the column as a human geography project. He remembers spreading out several years’ worth of columns when compiling a book of them. “I thought, geez, this is pretty much what people were like in The Lewiston Tribune area in the late 1980s.”
His selection process is not entirely random. Subjects have to live in a home with a phone, and they have to be willing to talk. Often, Johnson does get turned down.
“I always felt someday I’ll call an ax murderer, and it’ll be the greatest story I’ll never get,” Johnson said. But he does not hanker much for the big story that would get him to a city or a larger paper. At 50, he lives with his wife, two daughters, three horses and six dogs on 117 acres near Princeton. His paper has a circulation of 30,000, in an area where about 150,000 people live.
“It’s a noisy newspaper,” he said, and he likes it that way.
Recently he drove out past where North Palouse Road turns to gravel near Colfax, to meet Chiquita, a white Andalusian horse who might be Sarah McKnight’s ticket to becoming a rodeo queen in September.
“Ah, that’s the hook on the story,” he said when Sarah, 16, mentioned her goal. It takes her seven hours to wash and groom the $1,500 horse, which she bought with her wages from Taco Time. Her boyfriend, whom she said is “cowboy kind of quiet,” answered the phone at Sarah’s house when Johnson called, but she immediately took over.
Before leaving the corral, she introduced Jim Hayes, the 84-year-old widower who owns the land where Chiquita boards. The rancher explained that Sarah is too easy on the horse, adding: “Horses are kind of like women. They’re all nice and some are nicer.” He hugged the girl, who calls him Grandpa.
“I’ll tell you what, Mr. Johnson,” Hayes called after the reporter, who was heading back to town. “Why don’t we see about a subscription to The Lewiston Tribune for a while?”