Dialing for Columns in Idaho  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   June 1995

Dialing for Columns in Idaho   

The Best of Everyone Has a Story
By David Johnson
Tribune Publishing Co.

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


The Best of Everyone Has a Story
By David Johnson
Tribune Publishing Co.
98 pages; $10.95

David Johnson is the only writer I know to take that advice literally. For 11 years, he has been writing a column for the Lewiston, Idaho, Morning Tribune in which he makes random telephone calls and interviews whoever answers.

He simply asks if they "would like to have a small story in the newspaper, either about their hobby, their profession or, really, anything they'd like to talk about."

Occasionally people decline, but only once has anyone abruptly hung up. Most often, they sheepishly accept.

This book collects 45 of the more than 550 columns Johnson has written. Granted, the idea is risky, and some writers couldn't make it work. But Johnson has a pleasant, conversational style, happily makes the best of material that's sometimes thin, and draws help from the splendid candid photos and pithy headlines that accompany the column.

Sometimes he stretches patience by "interviewing" family pets or infants or the sadly monosyllabic. But more often Johnson's method produces moving, insightful pieces that otherwise might never exist.

They range from the quirky to the profound. He's written about a quality controller at a toilet paper factory and an actor who'll play Clevis the Nerd for your birthday. Many columns deal with regional folklore and color; he's profiled one of only 150 living full-blooded Nez Perce Indians, a 72-year-old saddlemaker, a couple looking forward to the opening of elk season and a muskrat trapper.

More seriously, a woman shared the poignant story of her stillborn baby, a teenager talked about being accidentally shot in the mouth as a toddler, and a couple worked through the tragedy of their daughter-in-law killing their granddaughter.

Almost every one of Johnson's columns provides an ingratiating slice of life, a worthy reaffirmation that reporters shouldn't wait around for the phone to ring. As Johnson puts it, "There are more names in the local telephone book than any reporter could write about in a lifetime."



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