By Kelci McKendrick
At 25-years-old, Lizzie Johnson has interned at the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the Omaha World-Herald, her hometown newspaper, and abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Upon graduating from the University of Missouri in December 2014, she accepted an internship from the San Francisco Chronicle, which turned into a full-time position where she now covers California wildfires.
Johnson traveled abroad to Argentina to work for a news organization as part of a Mizzou program. She did all of her reporting in Spanish, which she said was difficult but made her realize she can do anything. It also instilled a love for traveling in her. Since then, she has traveled to about 30 countries, with Copenhagen being her favorite place so far.
Johnson began her career at the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 2015 after an internship at the Chicago Tribune, which she said was her favorite internship because she learned a lot about backgrounding, public records and crime reporting — skills she thinks are great to have as a backbone for all types of reporting. She received the call from the Chronicle offering her the position, and she received a call again from them hours later offering her a full-time job.
“It was just one of those dumb luck things,” Johnson said. “One of my college professors always told me, ‘Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,’ and this was one of those things that really just kind of panned out.”
She covered politics for two years and then transitioned to covering fires, which she said she likes more. The Chronicle actually created the position for her because wildfires have become such prevalent issue in California that they need someone to cover them specifically. She became “the fire girl.”
She spent a full year writing the “Out of the Fire” series, taking the time to really grasp the aftermath of losing one’s home to a fire.
“Out of the Fire” consists of four stories involving two couple. Astrid and Henry Granger had lived in Coffee Park in Santa Rosa, California, for 30 years, and Melissa and Cole Geissinger had moved there just two years before the fire and were expecting their first child. Johnson got the two couples to trust her by being honest about her view for the story.
“I think it’s important to be really honest upfront about what you’re expectations are,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really important to make sure that your subjects know that from the get go, and then just let them know that you have certain needs and expectations from them to write a really good story.”
Johnson followed the Grangers and the Geissingers throughout their lives one year after they lost their homes — and also the personal challenges they each faced. The Geissingers spent many months in the hospital with their son Apollo after he was born with health issues, and the Grangers faced Henry having a heart attack and coming close to death.
“The fire made everything so much more intense,” Johnson said. “All of these things that would have been big challenges on their own suddenly felt insurmountable because the fire was layered on top of them, and that’s how it was for a lot of people.”
Johnson said following them throughout these difficult moments and asking them difficult questions was hard and sometimes uncomfortable, but as Johnson said, “if you aren’t feeling uncomfortable during an interview, it means you probably aren’t asking the right questions to get to the heart of what someone is going through.”
The series took a lot of organization, according to Johnson. She said she had over 200 pages of notes for each couple, and she would go through them with highlighters to organize her story and figure out what goes where. Editing it was simple, she said, because she and her editor had a really great idea of what they wanted the story to look like.
At only 25, Johnson has done incredible things and seen the world, and she still envisions an amazing future for herself. She is releasing two projects soon — one about firefighters and how few of them there are and one about suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, and she hopes to do more stories like “Out of the Fire” in the future.
Johnson’s top goal in the news world is to become a war correspondent, and she said she thinks “Out of the Fire” has helped her prepare for that.
“It’s basically the same model as what I did with this story where I kind of parachute into a place and tell a story about what’s happening and get people to care about something they haven’t thought about before,” Johnson said.
I went into this assignment not having a favorite writer — only a favorite newspaper, The Chronicle. I came out of this with a new favorite writer. She tells compelling stories in a way that makes readers compassionate about things. With “Out of the Fire,” Johnson created a beautiful parallel between a couple that just started their life at Coffee Park and one that had been there for so long. Their lives were briefly intertwined through Johnson, and the impact the story has left on readers is just what she had envisioned for it in the year it took to write it.