The Repurposed Journalist – Josh Kerns: Shining a Light

Posted: February 5, 2019 in employment

A Rare Kind of Storyteller 

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Josh Kerns

There’s no nonsense with Josh Kerns. He will set you straight. He’s passionate about getting the story right and making you care about it. This former TV and radio journalist has worked for KIRO 97.3FM, KOMO 4 TV, KOMO News Radio in Seattle, Potomac Radio News in Washington, D.C. and KMMS in Bozeman, Montana, where he got his start in broadcasting in 1990. Kerns received his Masters in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. in 1995 after graduating from Montana State University in 1991.

It’s rare that a storyteller can jump back and forth from journalism to public relations and back again but that’s exactly what Josh Kerns did when he joined KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest.com as an anchor and reporter in 2007. Ten years later, he left KIRO to become the principal at Cypress Point Strategic. Josh has won several Emmy and Edward R. Murrow Awards. He’s spent several years meeting a daily deadline as well as serving as a strategic communications consultant, multi-media producer and account manager for top public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom, where he handled communications campaigns for Microsoft, Victoria Secret SAP and others, securing coverage on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC and National Public Radio. You can read all that on his Linked In profile page but what links all those experiences together is that Josh Kerns has always been a storyteller. Today, he tells physicians’ stories as Director of Communications and Marketing for the King County Medical Society.

I sat down recently with Josh Kerns to talk about his career and finding purpose after life in the newsroom.

Kerns interviewing Dr. Josh Liao/UW Medicine for DocsTalk podcast

Josh Kerns: I am officially the Director of Marketing and Communications. I have a twofold mandate. One is to give voice to the thousands of physicians and retired physicians in King County and the other is to grow our membership, to create as much value so that people will join.

John Yeager: What does that entail?

Kerns: Everything from external communications, traditional PR, I produce a podcast, I do media relations, placing our doctor’s stories in radio, TV, newspaper. I help our physicians put together op-eds. I work with other partner organizations that our doctors are passionate about. For example, one of our docs, a primary care doc up at Evergreen in Kirkland, very passionate about the Clean Air Initiative that was on the ballot this fall. I worked with him and the campaign to help them get more coverage around the medical side of the Clean Air Initiative which ultimately… Clearly, I’m not very good at it because it lost by 20 points.”

“So really all of those things, but then also on the marketing piece, it is raising awareness for physicians to join the organization. There is a huge branding marketing component to it which is, “How do I create as much value through partnerships with organizations, discounts on home loans, car purchases?” Tangible things like that and then creating different marketing vehicles. How do I get the word out to you, John Yeager, (let’s say you’re a pediatrician in Bellevue) that you should be joining this organization? So, there is a sales component, a marketing component to it which may involve storytelling, my journalistic background. But at the end of the day, it is still very much separated from my public information officer role, if you will.

Yeager: I started The Repurposed Journalist a few years ago, and I’ve talked to so many different people, the blog is basically to describe life after the newsroom. So, what’s your purpose now? You talked about what part of the job entails and you headed that way, but what would you describe as your purpose?

Kerns: I think my purpose, John, at the end of the day is not that much different from when I went into this and got my master’s in Journalism. That’s a plug for American University. My purpose is to raise awareness, to shine a spotlight on things of importance to me and the world and the community. I would like to make the world a better place. So therefore, I would say that my mission is to do that, just depending on who hires me. As a Repurposed Journalist, maybe I didn’t have a specific constituency other than the general public. Now I have doctors in this role. But before it was Microsoft over the last few years and the UW Medical Center and the Mariners, when I do work for them. So, it’s always to give voice to tell the best possible story on behalf of whoever it is that I’m looking to shine a light on. Much like you, it’s still… At the end of the day, it’s about finding the story and telling the story.

Yeager: Alright, so I can look on LinkedIn and see the highlights of your career. What do you like to emphasize? You were a journalist, you met a daily deadline for many years. How many years? In and out of journalism. As I recall, you were in the local journalism scene, then you went to PR and then you went back to journalism. Unlike many people, you’ve been on both sides of that divide. How would you describe your career?

The Liberal Media?

Kerns: I would say that I always had a short attention span and always was interested in a lot of things. Whenever people talk about… This is my soapbox for a second. When people talk about the liberal media, I proudly wear that badge not from a political standpoint, but from the true sense of liberal, broad. Think of a liberal arts education. I’ve always been interested in so many things. And so, I would characterize my career as a constant curiosity and a constant desire to do a lot of different things. Which is why I bounced from… I started in college radio playing punk rock. Somebody handed me a copy one day because the news guy didn’t show up and I liked doing the news. And then I liked telling stories. But I also loved the visual side of television news. One of the things you did so incredibly, marrying those two and then figuring out how to do it. But I also wanted to do serious and I wanted to do sports and I wanted to do music and I had a music show on KIRO. So, my career I would characterize is, before it was cool to have 50 jobs, I wanted to have 50 jobs because I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over and over again.

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Kerns at T-Mobile Park Producing His Weekly Feature for Mariners Magazine/Mariners Radio Network

Kerns: And I think it has been reflected in that I’ve been a TV sports anchor. I’ve been a TV news reporter. I’ve been a radio host. I have produced stories for the Mariners, but then I also did, like you said. I left, got Hat Hunter now, went to Microsoft and did PR and came back because I found that I liked being around real information and not being… Trying to sell you on Windows Vista as the next great operating system, which we all know what happened with that. So that’s, I would characterize, as a very diverse career, constantly looking for something new, interesting that keeps me going. And I always encourage you. At the core, it’s still journalism. I write stories on a regular basis for our newsletter. I help others tell their stories. So, the story is still the core of it and it’s that innate curiosity about the world.

Yeager: My next question was going to be, “Define a journalist”, but I think you sort of just did with that answer. You have a natural curiosity to tell stories.

Kerns: Shining a light on those things that I feel the world needs to know about. And it doesn’t have to be just a politician’s peccadillos, financial malfeasance, but it is those things. It’s providing information to people that they wouldn’t otherwise have and maybe enriching their lives. So that to me at its core is what a journalist is, is somebody who wants to help. I don’t want to say… I hate the term “truth.” I know I have a strong feeling about what is the truth. Facts are the truth. You can argue whether or not you believe in the politics behind climate change, but you can’t argue with 40 years of data, I don’t think. So, me as a journalist, my role is to provide you that information and hopefully will empower somebody else to do something, whatever that may be.

Yeager: Do you miss the daily deadline at all?

Kerns: No. And it’s funny… The adrenaline… You know what? I miss the adrenaline when stuff is actually going on. I don’t miss the deadline of, “You’ve got to get something on the air at 3 o’clock no matter what, come hell or high water,” because it was always compromised. What I do miss is the excitement of when something is really going on, being at election night as the votes are being tallied. Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore. You gotta wait for the fourth drop six weeks from now. But I miss breaking news especially. I loved being in the middle of that. I miss being out there every day in just the throes of whatever is going on and being right there on the front row of history being made on a daily basis. So that I miss. And I miss the people.

Kerns: You know this. I miss not knowing what my day was gonna be like and at the end of the day it was rarely what you thought it was going to be. And whether that is an explosion, whatever, or just simply you went to the City Council meeting and you met this person and something happened and this vote… Just being plugged into everything. I miss the sort of energy and adrenaline of that. But I think Twitter and social media has satisfied a lot of that. I seem to get maybe… It’s sort of like though… I think like real sugar versus… Yeah, it’s a drug. Because that desire to know everything that’s going on and be right there plugged in, you can do it a lot more without having to be out on the streets. I don’t have to go to City Hall in order to know what’s going on.

Yeager: I’m always fascinated by the answer that people give me to this next question, which is, how has being a journalist helped you do what you’re doing now? Most people say that it’s a muscle that they used as a journalist and now they’re still using that same muscle. So, you get to do the same kind of work that you did when you were a journalist. So, it has helped you do what you’re doing now. I see it every time you print something or your podcast comes out. But it has helped you. Being a repurpose journalist now had a lot to do with being a journalist before.

A World in Need of Context

Kerns: I agree 100%. But I would take it beyond that, John. And that is, go beyond the muscle. But the skills, I think there is… that journalists are undervalued. The broad range of skill sets that are out there. Having to write and communicate effectively is an increasingly lost art. MIT teaches kids, is forcing now their grad students to take improv and speech classes ’cause they cannot communicate. We live in a world increasingly with information overload, but a lack of context. I think the ability to synthesize an idea clearly and somewhat quickly under deadline. But just in the world, to be able to see the world broadly and hone it in to a… Whether that’s for a business in the role of PR or whatever, as a strategic thinker, in any sort of capacity. As a parent. I also think that being exposed to so many people and ideas… Because if you study in a specific academic track, you’re a scientist, you’re around a certain way of thinking that was their dogma, their ideology, whatever, and you sort of get pigeonholed into that and it’s very hard to be exposed to broader ideas.

Kerns: As journalists, we’re exposed every day to different thoughts, to different perspectives, to different ways. So that therefore hopefully you can see the world as a journalist, as a repurpose journalist, with a much wider lens. Now, I would say that the drawback to that is that we see bullshit for what is bullshit. Your bullshit detector is much greater because you know the truth. Not to take stuff for face value. And that’s what’s made these last couple of years so damn hard. Because there’s just… You can’t tell me… The sky is blue. You cannot tell me the sky is not… You can’t tell me you don’t believe that and that I’m a fake news…

Yeager: Yeah. That’s hard when I have friends who voted one way and blamed reporters and blamed the media. They just have a job to do. So, journalists are under attack now and we don’t have to talk about that because… Well, that may be one of the reasons that you don’t miss doing a daily deadline right now.

Kerns: Well, it’s funny that you say that. In my last few years, and this is not exclusive to the right, I came under attack multiple times from the far left, from Kshama Sawant and some of these people who basically want… Who told me in no uncertain terms, I should report it their way. That I didn’t have a right as a male, as a white, whatever… Facts are still facts, information. And it is an industry under sought. I think we need it more than ever. I think it’s misunderstood. And I would say, if I was gonna issue a challenge to this generation… Who stay within the industry. They have to be much more… They have to almost do a PR campaign around journalism to inform, “What does a journalist actually do? What does that mean?” Because we have ideals and people sort of subscribe to these generalized notions that they saw in broadcasting just 25 years ago, whatever. But they’re wrong and they’re not true. And the people who are out there every day dedicating their lives to doing this, I think it’s incumbent on them and their employers to tell the world, “What does journalists actually do?” Because maybe we can rebuild some of the trust that the public should have in them.

What’s Next After Life in The Newsroom?

Yeager: One of the reasons that I started doing this is that when I got my masters at the UW in 2013, they said, “Well, start a blog. Write about what you know.” And it was like, at that point I had just left the business and I was trying to repurpose myself. And Hanson Hosein, the head of the MCDM, said, “Well, that’s your topic. That’s your title. That’s it.” That’s what it is, it’s the Repurposed Journalist and my audience is the people who are in the business who don’t think they have any options. Once they’re done, they feel like they’re gonna be, “Oh my God… ” What advice do you have to somebody who’s looking at a transition out of the newsroom? What would you tell them about life after the newsroom?

Kerns: There is tremendous opportunity. The skills you develop that you have to exercise at a high level every day as a journalist, and whether that is print or broadcast. And the notion of, “I’m a writer only.” No, we’re all writers. At its core, we’re all writers, first and foremost. But I believe that the industry, the culture of journalism, was always such that it denigrated over the last, say, 25 years. The value… The self-worth of journalists to think that they couldn’t do anything else. The opposite is true. The skills you have as a writer, as a communicator, as a critical thinker, as a project manager, as an organizer, as a nimble actor, are all so incredibly vital to business. Whether directly in PR, marketing, advertising. In so many ways, in project management. And I think that the biggest advice I would give people is to start to network outside of the industry and figure out, “How do you translate those skills? How do you first identify them?” And I’ve had this conversation, John, with you and with many other people.

Kerns: The first step is being able to self-identify. What am I good at? What are those things? And then being able to translate maybe the verbiage for the industry or the field that you’re interested in. Whether it is advertising, marketing, PR, something unrelated, non-profit work. And then start to network and begin to plug yourself in. And what you will find is, a, that you can take a lunch break and that you can actually have weekends and holidays off. B, that people will pay you way more than they pay in the news business for these skills that you have acquired, that you have rightfully earned. And, c, that you will bring such an incredible value that is missing from so many organizations. I will tell you, I’ve worked with Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates, Phil Kahn. I have been around top-level CEOs in this community for 20 plus years, both as a news person, but as a strategic communicator. Your comfort with being able to be around those people, all of my work with the Mariners and the Seahawks in the locker room, translates directly to my ability to sit down with the CEO.

Kerns: You as a journalist, you can do that too. And I would say start to build that network outside of it. Get out of the bubble and don’t listen to the boss say, “You can’t do anything else,” or, “You’re lucky just to have this job,” because that’s bullshit. There are a lot of people in Seattle specifically who would kill to have you if only they knew you were out there.

Yeager: Anything I didn’t ask you? I mean we could talk for hours and hours.

Kerns: Where did my hair go? Why did I get out of TV? People say, “Why did you stop doing TV?” I said, “I was 40 pounds lighter and a lot more hair.” No, I think we got it.”

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