‘Find the unexplored angle’
And other lessons from Andrew Johnson’s varied career
Senior writer-editor Andrew Johnson has worn a variety of hats throughout his career across a handful of fields, from media to politics to entertainment. He’s written for National Review, managed communications for a Minnesota congressman and even briefly interned behind the scenes at the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
The through line, he says, has been distilling complex information and diverse viewpoints into digestible content that serves an audience well. In every role, he has wholly committed to conveying the voice and achieving the goals of whoever he has spoken for, whether himself, his former boss or, now, clients.
We talked to Andrew about what he’s learned from TV news, a Capitol Hill tragedy and Jerry Seinfeld.
SM: At National Review, you monitored developing news on TV and the internet and wrote up-to-the-minute content. What did that teach you about the pressures of the news cycle?
Andrew Johnson: I’ll start off by saying one thing: Sitting in front of multiple television screens blasting cable news for hours on end will do things to you! Hopefully this doesn’t come off as cynical, but that time actually indicated to me how predictable — and, in a sense, devalued — the news cycle ultimately is. When everything is “urgent,” “important,” or “breaking,” then those terms start to lose meaning. Something that does merit pressure, attention or criticism is going to get lost in the fleeting nature of noise. The result is we either treat everything with the utmost magnitude or eventually become numb to it, both of which have negative ramifications on consumers, the subjects being covered and the media at large. There’s a lot to unpack on this topic, but I think it taught me to turn a more reflective and critical eye towards what and how we consume the news. I’d encourage clients to approach it the same way in terms of putting any news coverage or public reaction— positive or negative — into perspective and being measured in what you do with it moving forward.
SM: While you were communications director for Representative Erik Paulsen (R-MN), in 2017, one of his roommates, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), was shot and wounded during a Congressional baseball game. What did you learn from that experience, professionally and personally?
Andrew: That was a particularly challenging day because, amid trying to take care of necessary professional duties, there was literally a life at stake, and one that had a very personal connection to the office. On a tactical level, that experience demonstrated how important it is to have a structure in place so that you can rely on established processes in an emergency. My my boss received nearly 100 media requests from across the country that day, and even though it was a much larger number than usual, we had a system in place to manage it all, even if we had to expedite the standard process. At the same time, it’s important to not lose sight of the very human element of a catastrophe like that. It can be easy to get swept up in the fallout and look to cross tasks off the list, but there are sensitivities and emotions that must be recognized as well.
SM: You interned on the “Late Show With David Letterman” during college. Who are your favorite comics, and what have you learned from comedy that helps you on the job?
Andrew: Favorite comics — that’s a tough one. I could spend forever agonizing over this list, so I’ll throw out a handful of comedic influences off the top of my head: Mostly topical late-night television with a particular fondness for Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson and “Saturday Night Live”; Jerry Seinfeld and “Seinfeld”; Tina Fey and “30 Rock”; Aziz Ansari, Eddie Izzard, Bill Murray. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize “The Simpsons.”
Something that has always stuck with me was hearing how Jerry Seinfeld approached joke-writing for his show. When he had a topic he wanted to write material on, he would give other comics and writers the topic and ask them to write jokes about it. Once he saw what they had, he would start developing his own original material, not using their material as a launching point but instead to know what direction he shouldn’t go. His thinking was if that’s what other people had to say on a topic, then he wanted to think of something different and unique. That has always stuck with me because it’s a way to challenge oneself to look at a subject, idea or concept from an unexplored angle. Think of what everyone else might say first, and then present something distinct from that.