Why I’m leaving the Obama team for the LA Times
I was standing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, seven weeks after giving birth to my darling son, having pulled together something that had never been done before. President Barack Obama was speaking to Americans in a live, prime-time address from the other side of the world.
Every Presidential event requires precision, minute-to-minute coordination. Addressing the country at prime-time — from a secret location, a year after Osama Bin Laden was killed — required near perfection. Only a handful of White House staff were in the know. The media needed enough information that they could interrupt prime-time programing, but if the secret broke it could all be called off.
When it came together, I was watching in a hangar so quiet I could hear myself breathing. An atomic clock helped count down to the second the President would walk to the podium. As a new mother, I was keenly aware of my place helping to write history.
Addressing the public is something every Commander in Chief must do, and each leader must adapt to the changing ways we communicate. In this administration, we’ve had the opportunity to embrace new platforms that rapid changes in technology have given us, while also understanding the importance of established news organizations. Our trip to Afghanistan was a moment when we embraced both.
When I joined President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007 it was a start up.
Major media outlets were saying we didn’t stand a chance — and I didn’t care. I believed in him. I drove more than 30,000 miles in eight months, to every corner of Iowa. I got less sleep than post childbirth. I was setting up events, arranging press outreach, anything to make sure my candidate had a chance to break through.
Since those start up days — eight years ago — I have traveled to 40 countries and more than 40 states. I have organized emergency briefings, international summits, traveled to war zones. I’ve seen first-hand how technology can transform and improve one of the oldest institutions we have: The Executive Office of the President.
Yesterday, I left the White House for another legacy brand: the Los Angeles Times. Joining a nearly 134-year-old news organization might seem curious, particularly as I watch so many of my White House colleagues leave for jobs at new technology companies.
So why is this millennial Mom leaving the Obama orbit for legacy media?
Because the LA Times is different. And because it is absolutely essential that it thrives.
The LA Times has new, exciting leadership. Folks with some of the same sense of mission, tech expertise and boundless energy that I found when I started on the Obama campaign.
Publisher and CEO Austin Beutner, who has a tremendous record of accomplishment, took over last year bringing his savvy to the company. He’s recruited a new team. Deputy Publisher Nicco Mele, a digital native lured from Harvard, is exploring new ways to deliver news. Chief Revenue Officer Don Reis, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and ESPN, is delivering world class solutions to sponsors and advertisers. Chief of Staff Renata Simril, an accomplished task manager, is ensuring good ideas get great execution.
That team helped recruit Mitra Kalita — who was involved in founding one of India’s leading business news sites before taking her ideas to Quartz. And NYT senior editor Larry Ingrassia, who was lured to the West Coast to intertwine award-winning journalism with entrepreneurial endeavors. They join accomplished LA Times veterans, Editor Davan Maharaj and Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin.
Innovation means some changes, but these will only strengthen the vitality of the LA Times’ core mission. The LA Times will continue to deliver essential news and information.
In the coming year, the LA Times will launch new efforts to share its stories with the world, while continuing the role it has always played as a watchdog for California and the world.
I want to be a part of that transformation.
Traveling with the President, I saw what countries without a vibrant free press look like. At our first Summit of Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago, I watched Hugo Chavez lead a pack of paparazzi into a private setting so that he could shape his own image. At another summit, in L’Aquila, Italy I saw Muammar Gaddafi driving in an electric car with his own handlers, while media swarmed him — but never got an answer to a question.
Without a robust press pushing the boundaries of power, absolute power will corrupt absolutely. And that is precisely why we need organizations like the LA Times to survive.
I love technology: how a brave bystander can take video of injustice, how we can all take part in a dialogue online with our leaders, and how we can all communicate directly.
But with so many platforms with which to get news, we need to make sure those who deliver us the facts survive.
I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois — a place candidate Obama talked about in his 2004 Democratic convention speech — an industrial town that had lost countless jobs when Maytag moved away. What gave me an opportunity, in a small town in the middle of the country, was the media I consumed. My mother read the newspaper to us each day. I read Reader’s Digest. I watched 60 Minutes. I had those reliable sources to make my decisions and to learn about the world around me.
I can’t imagine a future for my son with anything less. I’m thrilled to join the LA Times as they innovate and build a strong future for their newsroom, and continue to deliver the news on various platforms to us, the digital news consumers.
Johanna Maska will start as Vice President Marketing and Communications, Los Angeles Times, on May 1, 2015. She started with the Obama campaign in 2007 and was most recently serving as Director of Press Advance at the White House.