Janice Johnston took to the airwaves for the first time as a country music deejay at “the mighty CKNX,” a radio and TV station in what she would always refer to as “Swingin’ Wingham,” Ontario. The story goes that the first song she spun played at the wrong speed, and her first words on air were something we can’t put in the newspaper.
Janice Johnston died on Jan. 13 from cancer, weeks after being diagnosed. She was 62.
Janice Katherine Vitrowski was born in London, Ont., on March 2, 1960. She was an only child, an avid reader and writer whose natural curiosity and social graces drew her, after high school, toward a career in media and journalism. She studied radio and television at what was then Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University), and then moved to Swingin’ Wingham.
After her stint on the country music dial, she moved to Edmonton in the early 1980s, getting a job as a reporter at CISN 104. The news director there immediately took an editing pen to her name, cutting Vitrowski and renaming her Janice London, after her hometown.
She met another reporter, Scott Johnston, en route to a media curling bonspiel in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 1984, literally falling into his lap when the bus hit a curve. She had forgotten her wallet, and with no bank machines in those days, Mr. Johnston covered her costs for the weekend.
It appeared to be fate’s fourth – and most obvious – attempt to throw them together. She and Mr. Johnston would later discover they had attended a Kiwanis music festival together in Belleville, Ont., in high school, she a girl from London playing the euphonium, he a mallet guy from Edmonton on percussion. They had also shared a history class at Ryerson, where, as Mr. Johnston says, she “sat at the front putting her hand up all the time,” and he sat at the back not paying attention. Their paths crossed again at the Edmonton bar Goose Loonies after her move to the city, but Mr. Johnston paid more attention to her friend.
But after she landed in his lap on the bus, there was really no escaping it. They were engaged the next year, and she became Janice Johnston.
In media circles, she was the Janice Johnston. As Senator Paula Simons, once a colleague of Janice’s in Edmonton media, described her, she was “a reporter’s reporter, and a fabulous Edmonton character, like a larger-than-life figure from a 1940s film.”
Ms. Johnston was a fearless reporter who had no problem standing up in a crowded courtroom to request, or if necessary demand, access to documents or oppose a publication ban. From across courtrooms and crime scenes, packed together in scrums on the courthouse steps, fighting for scoops and exclusives, her colleagues (myself included) admired how skillfully Ms. Johnston could move between being tough-as-nails and deeply compassionate. She wielded her microphone with unflinching confidence to those in authority, but with sensitivity and care to the hurt and devastated people who are at the heart of most court and crime stories.
“The compassion was there, you’d hear it in her voice. She’d have this innate ability to just draw that person out,” Mr. Johnston says. But with a lawyer or someone in authority, “she had this Spidey sense when someone trying to snow her, and she would cut them off and try to drill down and get the real truth instead of the spin.”
Husband and wife stood side-by-side in scrums too many times to count. Mr. Johnston says when she talked over him with a question, he learned to just let her go. “Because inevitably she was going to get a better answer than me anyway.”
Ms. Johnston started working in TV at CFRN, then moved to CBC in 2002. In her long career, she covered some of the biggest stories in the city and country: Celebrities and sports heroes, tragedies and injustices, murders and misdeeds. There were far too many big names and big stories to list.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone with quite the same ability to make people listen and pay attention,” her CBC colleague Alex Zabjek said.
“She was a force.”
As another colleague, Dave Howell, described it, she could “wring the drama out of a grocery list.”
Ms. Johnston believed competition made reporters better, but as much as she loved to get a scoop, she was quick and kind with her compliments to colleagues, generous with her mentorship and experience. While she could be intimidating – and a bit scary – to other reporters, we quickly learned we could rely on her, too.
Some people think crime reporters hurt those they cover. But among the flood of responses after Ms. Johnston’s death, were kind words from people whose cases she covered, people to whom she extended her microphone on the worst days of their lives.
Bret McCann got to know Ms. Johnston quite well in that brutal context, as she covered the trial of the man accused of killing his parents. He says his family appreciated the close and supportive relationship they had with her, a relationship that continued long after the court case was completed. He notes she and Mr. Johnston attended a family memorial in 2016, and spent time with their extended family.
“We all thought that was so nice and kind,” he says.
Ms. Johnston once described approaching a case as though it were about someone in her own family, and that depth of empathy showed in the work she produced.
Outside court, Ms. Johnston loved shoes and fashion and fine wine. She was a devoted fan of Bruno Mars and Earth, Wind & Fire. She would burst with pride speaking of her daughter, Samantha, and was over-the-moon happy when she became “Gigi” to her granddaughter, Calliope.
She could sew and cook and craft skillfully, equal parts crime queen and domestic goddess. As her CBC colleague Kory Siegers said, “She could dig and dig on some of the most horrific stories and spend the weekend making jam.”
As a fair and balanced reporter, Ms. Johnston would want to make it clear she wasn’t perfect. Among the accolades at a packed gathering of journalists and lawyers and court folks to say goodbye, there were those who admitted to “complicated” relationships with her, who remembered times she clashed with them, offended them, irritated them, scooped them. But the stories were always said with a smile and with respect, and that says something, too.
Ms. Johnston leaves her husband, Scott; daughter, Samantha; son-in-law, Demetri Milles; and granddaughter, Calliope. She was predeceased by her parents, Jack and Marlene Vitrowski.
She died on the morning of Friday, Jan. 13, in time for her colleagues at CBC to get the story of her death out for the afternoon news hits before the weekend. Her colleagues knew she would have wanted it to be an exclusive.