This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
Nebraska native Jenna Johnson and a veteran political reporter for The Washington Post recently took on an important new role at the national news outlet: deputy democracy editor.
The formation of the democracy team of seven reporters and two editors was announced in July. According to an announcement by the Post, the goal of the team is to document battles over voting rules and access to the polls, efforts to sow doubt about elections, and erosion of trust in the democratic process.
“It just felt like coming out of the 2020 election that there was just this mounting problem in our country,” Johnson said. “An erosion of democracy, but also an erosion in the understanding of what democracy is and why we need it and why we should fight for it.”
While the democracy team’s main goal is to document, Johnson said the team also wants to help the American people realize why they should be concerned about the state of democracy.
“We formed this new team to just document what’s happening,” she said. “To also find ways to explain to the American people why this is alarming, what they can do to become more engaged, why they should want to be more engaged.”
Her new role is a continuation of what she sees as her public service.
Johnson, who grew up in Nebraska and attended high school in Omaha, said she became interested in journalism because of her parents, who were both
journalists at some point in their careers. In her household, Johnson said journalism was seen as a public service.
“Some people become teachers, some people become community leaders and some people become journalists,” she said. “And that is an important role to play in your community.”
Johnson graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2007. During her time at UNL, she worked at the Daily Nebraskan, where she was the editor-in-chief her senior year. She held a variety of internships, including the Des Moines Register, the Omaha World-Herald and finally The Washington Post. After that, she said, she “never left.”
Johnson started writing local news at the Post, then switched to covering politics, including coverage of Virginia’s governor race and the Maryland Legislature. The big shift came in 2015 when Johnson went from local to national news and covered the 2016 presidential election. She was the reporter assigned to Donald Trump.
She covered Trump’s first year in office, then returned to reporting national news and then editing. In April, she was asked to be the deputy democracy editor for the new team.
“Since her move last year into editing, Jenna has distinguished herself with her sharp ideas and keen ability to elevate reporters’ work in stints on the America, Health and Science, and Politics desks,” the Post said in announcing her new position.
In her new role, Johnson found the transition a lot less bumpy than expected. She said she was prepared for the new job by the previous jobs she held and the experiences she gained.
What Johnson did find surprising was the kind of content the democracy team would create. She believed they would do more think pieces.
“The thing that has surprised me the most is how there’s so much daily news to cover,” she said. “Every day, there are dozens of stories that our team could be doing about people who are trying to challenge democracy.”
Johnson has her own goals for the team. She wants to make sure the stories are lively and keep the reader’s attention but don’t overwhelm them. She said she wants to be sure the stories relate to people’s everyday lives.
“This idea of democracy is so abstract,” she said. “You say to them, ‘Democracy is under attack.’ And they’re like, ‘What does that mean?’ It’s difficult to know what that means. They need to know how it’s impacting their lives.”
Johnson said she and the team are continuing to work on new stories and plan to launch a social media project that will help explain the facts and myths surrounding the election process. The team hopes to publish the project on Instagram and TikTok during the midterm elections.
Johnson has high hopes for the newly formed team.
“I want us to tell good stories,” she said. “I want us to do work that’s not being done elsewhere. But my number one goal is I want to demystify all of this for readers.”
Read more Nebraska News Services stories about democracy here and national Democracy Day stories here.