Courtesy Janice Johnston ’92
Under Johnston’s direction, the show recently won an NAACP Image Award

From the advent of streaming to the global pandemic, television has changed plenty since Janice Johnston ’92 began her career at ABC News 25 years ago. But throughout seismic shifts in media, Johnston’s love of television storytelling has never wavered. 

“I loved telling stories. I grew up watching the evening news, the local news, with my parents,” she says. “It just seemed to me that that’s where all the action is, and I need to be there.”

Johnston began her career at ABC News in 1998. For the past 15 years, she has worked on 20/20, ABC’s newsmagazine program that first aired in 1978. In 2021, Johnston became the first woman and first person of color to serve as 20/20’s executive producer, joining a growing list of women at the helm of ABC’s lineup.  

She credits her Princeton network with helping launch her TV news career. A former practicing attorney, she began pursuing television while working at a law firm, taking night classes in broadcast journalism at NYU and combing through Princeton’s directory for alumni working in television and film. 

“You had to buy a book. It wasn’t online. So I bought the book and went through the book page by page and made a note of everyone who worked in television or film,” Johnston remembers. “This was the late ’90s, so I sent actual letters.” 

Since joining 20/20 in 2008, Johnston has helped shift the program to a two-hour format and a focus on true crime. Johnston called the show’s brand “malleable,” a trait that contributes to its success. 

“I would venture to say we were a little ahead of the true crime trend,” Johnston says. “It seemed to be what interested our viewers. Crime really affects all aspects of society.”

In addition to the change in format and focus, Johnston says streaming on Hulu has helped strengthen 20/20’s brand. “It’s bringing our show to another generation to keep us relevant. I grew up with Barbara Walters on Friday night and TGIF and all of that. That’s not what younger generations grow up with.”

Beyond true crime, Johnston says, the longer format — and numerous one-hour specials — have allowed her and her team to cover high-profile stories beyond traditional true crime, including the George Floyd protests, the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, and the early days of COVID-19. 

During her time at 20/20, Johnston has also produced two shows with former first lady Michelle Obama ’85. Johnston shot the first special, which coincided with Obama’s first book, on Princeton’s campus in 2018. The most recent one, Michelle Obama: The Light We Carry, A Conversation with Robin Roberts, received an NAACP Image Award, a rarity for a TV news program. 

“We’re not often nominated for NAACP Image Awards because they focus primarily on entertainment, not news,” Johnston says. “I was really proud of that show, and we put a lot of effort into it. And I’m glad that, as an African American woman, the community saw it and appreciated it.”

Janice Johnston claps her hands in front of a black-and-white poster of a cheering crowd.
Courtesy Janice Johnston ’92