Faces In the Crowd: Mark Johnson

July 12, 2018

By Aaron Michell

Mark Johnson got his start with the Marion Press.
Johnson, an ’09 Marion grad, and current news reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle, started his writing career right here at the paper: a high schooler, taking pictures and writing sports blurbs for his hometown teams.
While he eventually moved on to write for Central Michigan University, the Missaukee Sentinel, the Gaylord Herald Times, and now the Record-Eagle, Mark wants you to know that it was the Marion Press that got him started.
And that he’s pretty happy with where it’s taken him.
Mark, the son of George and Bonnie Johnson, grew up right here in downtown Marion, spending many a summer day playing ball with his friends and his brother, Jimmy, at the outdoor elementary basketball courts.
It was his love of sports that initially got him into writing. It’s been his love of writing that has taken his career to another level.
These days, you can often find Mark either reading, writing, or running. Or even reading about running. His favorite publication – outside of the Marion Press, of course – is Runner’s World. And other times you’ll find him running around with his girlfriend of two years, Lita, who also works for the Record-Eagle. Catch him on a weekend, and it’s possible – albeit unlikely – that the two of them may even be relaxing.
We were fortunate to catch up with Mark recently, where we found him in-between a news-story and a jog. We spoke about writing, his family, and growing up in Marion. We found out what we already knew: Mark Johnson is more than just another face in the crowd.

Mark,left, and his father George Johnson share a proud moment after a race.

Mark,left, and his father George Johnson share a proud moment after a race.

Marion Press: You’ve been with the Record-Eagle for two years now, how’s that going?
Mark: Good. Real busy; it’s been a couple of months, just nonstop.

MP: Are there specific stories that you cover?
Mark: We had a couple reporters leave, and we changed things around – I’m now the cops & courts reporter. I’m also covering Grand Traverse County government until we get another reporter on board.

MP: So you’re probably down at the courthouse quite often?
Mark: Yeah, every morning. I have a briefing with the police at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and then I go from there to the courthouse to look at court files with the district court and circuit courts. And then, of course, if there are any trials or court hearings that people are following, I’ll be there for those too. It’s constant. It’s crazy.

MP: Do you get any days off?
Mark: I get Saturdays and Sundays off. If I didn’t, I’d go insane.

MP: How do you spend your weekends?
Mark: It depends. I really like to run, so if there’s a good local race going on, we’ll check that out.

Mark and his girlfriend LIta both work for the Record Eagle out of Traverse City.

Mark and his girlfriend LIta both work for the Record Eagle out of Traverse City.

MP: What was it that made you want to get into journalism?
Mark: Well, I was actually telling this story the other day: I was in either JV football or basketball – I think it was football – and I remember that our team was doing pretty well, and we never got any coverage in the local papers. So, I went to [former Marion Press publisher] Jim Blevins and asked him if I could write a little blurb here and there on our football team. So I started with that; just writing little things for the paper. From there, I think eventually I started covering girls’ volleyball, and I got to write some longer stories.
So that kind of got me going, and I liked it enough. I took a career matchmaker in high school and it told me my best bet would be to be an author, or a reporter. I enjoyed writing those stories enough, so I thought I’d go ahead with that.
Went to school for that [at Central Michigan University]. I kept getting more experience and really liked it and just kept going from there.
But first, I started working and doing different things for the Marion Press. I’d cover Marion Fair stuff, sports; I did all kinds of stuff for the Marion Press. It wasn’t until my junior and senior years in high school – and later – that I really started writing a lot for the Marion Press.
Then eventually I moved on and started writing some stuff for the Missaukee Sentinel. Did more news features: a Fourth of July story in Falmouth, a restaurant opening in McBain, some other random stuff.
At that time, I was in college and I was writing sports; I was covering the women’s basketball team and the men’s track and field team.
I was writing for our student newspaper called Central Michigan Life. From there, one of our assignments in class was to interview a reporter and write a paper on it. After the interview, we were talking about careers and how I could make myself attractive to future employers. And [the reporter] said: ‘Get as much experience as you can.’
I wrote sports and then started covering regular university news. I just really loved news and kept with it.
From there, I was up in Gaylord for two years, and now I’ve been in Traverse City for two years.

MP: And the Record-Eagle is one of the biggest papers in Northern Michigan.
Mark: We like to think we’re one of the top papers in Northern Michigan. It’s definitely a step-up. But I was happy with where I was at, and someone just reached out to me about a job here. And so I came to Traverse City on this beautiful sunny day, and you drive in, by the water… and I really liked the newsroom and the editors and everything. I was pretty excited at the chance to come here.

MP: Do you ever get accused of writing FAKE NEWS?
Mark: Umm… I haven’t directly been accused of fake news. You can check our Facebook comments on our stories – we get comments for everything. If you’re gonna write a hard news story, you’re always gonna make someone angry, no matter what side it is. You know you’re doing a good job if both sides are mad at you!

MP: You’re a Marion ’09 grad – do you ever make it back here?
Mark: Yeah, I make it back occasionally. Our ten-year school anniversary is coming up. I like to pop in every now and then. Go down to the playground elementary school; walk around the track. Now that I’ve gotten older, everything feels so much smaller now, but I’ve come to appreciate it.
7-13-18 Faces in the Crowd Mark Johnson Mark Johnson
MP: What are some of your fondest memories of growing up in Marion?
Mark: I was a waterboy on the basketball team for so many years, and I think I learned a lot through that, and through [former coach] Dale Eising, and through being with [the players]. We had a such a good team that year [2001] we went to the finals. I learned a lot through sports – basketball, football – playing both of those sports was fun. I had a lot of great teachers that had a really big influence on me; I think they showed me a lot and I credit them for where I’m at right now.
Outside of school I had a great group of friends. I was driving through Marion the other day – we went past the elementary school and those old basketball hoops – and I remember once the snow would break, we’d all be out there playing. That was so much fun.

MP: Did you have any favorite teachers? Your English teachers must’ve been pretty good.
Mark: Yep, they were. My last English teacher was Mrs. Lalone – I learned a lot from her – and Mrs. Cairnduff. Those were my two high school English teachers. I really liked Mr. Keeler – it was a lot of science stuff, but I enjoyed his classes. English was my biggest motivation; I loved to write and read, and I still do.
The Marion Press got me started and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. I’ll always remember working for the paper and talking with the people in town. It’s always nice to stop back in town and read the paper and see what’s going on.

MP: Tell us about your dad. [George Johnson, who passed away in September of 2017] Most people probably knew him as a basketball coach or being involved with the community, but he did a lot of things before he ever got to Marion.
Mark: Yeah, you know, I’m still learning about him. He never really gloated. If I saw a picture or some kind of certificate, I’d ask him about it and he’d tell the story, so I’m still learning about him. He was the Mayor of Omer, Michigan, for a while and he worked real hard to get that town official recognition as being the smallest town in Michigan. He worked for the state before that. Out of college he was going to go to the University of Michigan and run track, but he ended up getting drafted and went over to Germany during peace time just after World War II.
He worked so many jobs: he worked for the state, he was a mayor. When he came to Marion, he served on the school board; he was an assistant coach for the basketball team; he helped organize Old Fashioned Days for a year or two. And once my brother, Jimmy, transferred to McBain, he followed him there and was an assistant coach there. Until he died, he was an assistant coach.

MP: And your mom’s been a big part of your life too.
Mark: Oh yeah, both of my parents were. I still talk to her every night on the phone and check in on how things are going. She and my dad were always there to back me up and give me the confidence to pursue dreams – whether it was going out for the basketball or football teams, or applying for Central Michigan University, or applying for my first job. They’ve always been a big support system and my mom still is.

MP: You’re a northern Michigander, born and bred. What is it about northern Michigan that has kept you here?
Mark: The natural area. I mean, you can get out of town in five minutes and be in the woods or at a lake. Hiking somewhere; running somewhere.
I think the communities are tighter up here too – which can be good and bad. In Gaylord, I couldn’t go grocery shopping without seeing someone I knew. People tend to be pretty friendly up here. I’ll go to a [Detroit] Tigers game for a day and I’m so relieved to get back here. It’s just so much greener: all the water, the trees, everything. It just feels so much cleaner.

MP: It’s nice as long as you can make it through the winter.
Mark: Well, that’s the only bad part. But in any part of Michigan you’re gonna have to deal with that. Surviving it makes the summer feel that much better.

MP: What’s the best advice you’ve been given? Who’s been your biggest mentor or role model in your life?
Mark: It’s definitely been my dad. I don’t know if he ever told me directly, but one of the things that really rubbed off on me was his attitude that you don’t have to be the smartest person, or the most talented, but if you work your butt off that will make a difference and you’ll go places. And I think that’s where I’m at. I didn’t do the best in college. I did okay in high school. But where I struggled I worked really hard and tried to make the best of things. It’s all about hard work; working as hard as you can. If you work as hard as you can, that’s the most important thing – and you can leave something knowing you did.

MP: Your dad was a pretty cool dude.
Mark: Yes he was.

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