Henry Dubroff founded Pacific Coast Business Times in 1999 with a leased Saab, a checkbook and a business plan. He remains chairman and editor of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based business publication. He previously was editor of The Denver Business Journal and business editor at the Denver Post.
Fifty years ago, the business journal as we know it did not exist.
In Denver and a few other places, specialized weeklies made a stab at covering news from an economic perspective. However, most community-based business publications simply printed legal notices, public records and press releases. Original reporting was the exception rather than the rule.
Through the 1960s and the turbulent years of the post-Watergate era, business journals remained upstarts with little to offer aspiring writers and editors, who looked to national publications and regional dailies as content leaders and career destinations.
But beginning in the late 1970s, and especially after the economic recovery of the early 1980s, business journals began to move up in both quality of content and professional standing.
“Business journals were just starting to recognize that they could — and did — have real clout in their communities. While execution was generally pretty rough, there was a genuine interest in improvement — in writing, headlines, design, everything,” recalled Kent Bernhard, who joined American City Business Journals in 1994 and was editorial director until his retirement in 2010.
As relatively autonomous enterprises that worked for companies that increasingly valued quality and a competitive spirit, business journals flourished. They were quick to exploit the advantage of digital platforms and emails and did not follow their daily rivals down the money-losing road of free content.
By the onset of the Great Recession the business journal fully evolved. One-time upstarts were now the incumbents, serving as the primary source for local and regional business and financial news in communities across the country.
In 2013, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers counted nearly 600 business journal staffers among its members; roughly one in five SABEW members works for a business journal or a company where business journals are a substantial part of the overall enterprise.
Business journals command the high ground in local business news coverage in many metropolitan markets. They have hired dozens of reporters and editors cast aside by faltering dailies. And increasingly, it is business journal reporters who are called upon as experts by other media.
The largest operator of business journals is Charlotte, N.C.-based American City, founded in 1985. A unit of Advance Publications, it publishes business journals in 40 communities. Crain’s and a Southern California group led by the Los Angeles Business Journal, also are recognized industry leaders.
But the post-recession environment presents real challenges to a business model and editorial approach that yielded growth in audience and stature for 25 years. In a world where barriers to entry are low and competition is only a mouse click away, weekly business journals have been forced to adapt their weekly print editions to a 24/7 news cycle.
And the rigorous schedule of special reports that’s common to most weeklies, the highly successful Book of Lists, will have to morph onto digital platforms such as tablets and smart phones.
The Early Years
Many of the earliest business journals were text-heavy and dull. They catered to a small group of bankers and lawyers willing to pay for listings of bankruptcies, lawsuits or new businesses.
But not all of them. Eugene Cervi, a maverick reporter who had worked at the Rocky Mountain News before joining The Denver Post, began publishing Cervi’s Rocky Mountain Journal in 1948. Cervi had left journalism for Democratic Party politics, and the populist New Dealer said his new weekly’s goal was to cover “cold-blooded economics.”
Cervi’s publication was a mix of economic reporting, briefs, gossip and an occasional investigative article. Favorite targets of his acerbic pen were the Public Service Company of Colorado and Denver Mayor Quigg Newton. On his death in 1970, the New York Times called Cervi “one of the most outspoken voices in American journalism.” His paper eventually changed its name to the Denver Business Journal, which now bills itself as the nation’s oldest weekly business newspaper.
The newspaper tried twice-weekly and even daily publication but settled on a once-a-week report, said Denver Business Journal Managing Editor Wayne Hicks who reported on the origins of business journals for the 50th anniversary of the Denver publication in 1998.
An emerging growth story.
In other parts of the country, viable business weeklies were getting established. In the early 1950s, the Long Island Business News found a niche publishing locally focused articles and attracting business-to-business advertisers in the fact-growing suburbs of New York City.
In 1977, Rance Crain, whose family owned trade publications such as Advertising Age, gave a speech at the Houston Advertising Club. There he learned about the success of the Houston Business Journal, which had been founded in 1971 as a way to chronicle that city’s rising fortunes in energy and commercial development. The Houston trip left an impression.
When the Chicago Daily News folded the next year, Crain used the moment to launch a weekly business publication. Crain’s Chicago Business, first published in 1978, rapidly became perhaps the most successful single startup in business journal history. Focusing on corporate strategy and overlooked but important business-to-business beats such as marketing and commercial real estate, Crain’s quickly established itself as a viable enterprise. Within two years Crain’s launched a second business publication in Cleveland, and in 1985 it launched Crain’s New York Business and Crain’s Detroit Business.
“The daily newspapers in Chicago covered the big companies in a dull plodding way, but they overlooked the large and growing number of small businesses,” said Dan Miller who helped launch Crain’s flagship as managing editor and served as editor and associate publisher for the next 15 years.
“In addition, their coverage of large companies was strictly press release stuff. The staffs had little appreciation for business strategy and tactics, or even what business was about,” he added. By trying to understand what made an emerging company successful, Crain’s tapped into the explosion of startups among privately held companies that were the hallmarks of the economic expansions of the 1980s and 1990s.
“The culture of the CCB newsroom from Day 1 was ‘get the scoop,’” said Miller. “The editors and staff knew that to survive we had to present readers with information they couldn’t get elsewhere.”
Crain’s didn’t hesitate to build its brand, producing a weekly news digest that it handed out to television and radio stations to get free air time. The success of Crain’s Chicago Business proved that a weekly business publication could be highly successful in large U.S. cities. But would a weekly business journal succeed in a smaller metro market? Four years after Crain’s Chicago Business made its debut, the launch of the Kansas City Business Journal took the first step toward establishing a chain of business weeklies with a strong presence in middle-market cities.
Co-founders Mike Russell and William “Doc” Worley combined three crucial ingredients:
- First, the economies of desktop publishing;
- Second, an editorial focus on specialized beats such as commercial real estate and financial services;
- Third, an entrepreneurial flair for marketing and promotion.
They put sizzle into the newspaper’s public record section with Top 25 Lists which then became the Book of Lists, a hot seller and a lucrative brand. By 1985 Russell and Worley formed American City Business Journals, folding eight operations, including one in Hawaii, under a single umbrella.
The company went public and rolled up a group of business publications owned by Scripps Howard, including the successor to Cervi’s Denver publication.
“The Kansas City Business Journal got started in 1982 or ’83, and it was a revelation,” said Charlie Crumpley, a former Kansas City Times staff writer who has been editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal since 2005. “Their stories were local, granular and transaction-based. They picked up local conflicts that we missed and they often were first with stories about companies or banks that were starting to show signs of financial distress. It was a bit of a shock because an upstart was showing us — a 100-year-old institution — how it should be done.”
But American City had taken on too much debt in its bold expansion and the company’s stock cratered after the 1987 market crash. Several operations, including its Los Angeles journal, were sold off. In 1989, a partnership led by former Dow Jones & Co. President Ray Shaw and Oklahoma City publisher Edward Gaylord bought a majority interest in American City and moved its headquarters to Charlotte.
Shaw’s purchase proved to be timely and highly profitable. He raised editorial standards, pushed for more projects and better design and created cross-training opportunities for top editors. He also put his stamp on the entire group, eschewing political endorsements on op-ed pages and pressing editors and publishers to transfer successful ideas between large markets such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Dallas and smaller cities such as Albany, Wichita and Jacksonville.
One of the biggest problems was staff turnover. As dailies beefed up their business news departments in the early 1990s they could cherry pick up-and-coming business journal staffers eager to seize the opportunity. In 1996, Shaw sold American City to the Newhouse’s Advance Publications for $268 million. He stayed on as chief executive until his death in 2009. His son Whit Shaw now runs the company.
The dawn of a new era
From the early 1980s until the financial crisis of 2008, business journals made steady and sometimes spectacular gains. “It was a classic bell curve,” said Mickey Maurer, the longtime owner of IBD Media, the parent of the Indianapolis Business Journal, one of the nation’s largest independents. “I bought in at the bottom and rode it to the top.”
Indeed, the onset of the digital age at first proved a bonus for business journals which could capitalize on ever-cheaper technology, email newsletters and growing events to expand their presence.
As metro newspapers cut back amid a plunge in classified and auto advertising, career paths reversed direction with former daily business editors and writers looking for stability at the local business journal. Maurer said his publication finds it easy to recruit and hire staff from daily competitors.
But the past five years have forced business journals to adapt to a new reality. The changing media scene and sluggish economic recovery signal that the “glory days” are over, said Maurer, who added: “I don’t think it’s going to be business as usual.” In addition to a number of advertisers abandoning print for the Web, business journals rely on the U.S. Postal Service for delivery. With postal rates rising and service being cut back, the delivery system that has worked well for decades may not be sustainable.
Many veterans of the industry think that business journals will find ways to maneuver through a transition that’s already under way. Social media can elevate the profile of a niche publication and drive attendance at increasingly popular awards events such as “40 Under 40” dinners, celebrating successful young professionals, or health care summits. Digital paywalls and applications that are tablet-friendly and adaptable to smart phones are allowing business journal subscribers to access their accounts on the road or around the globe.
“The new technology is very disruptive to business journals, but we will figure it out and thrive,” said Maurer.
Former Crain’s Editor Miller thinks that business journals can find ways to refresh their print publications. “In the future, regional business pubs can digest, excerpt and summarize national and international business news just as BusinessWeek did at the height of its influence,” he wrote in an email.
But Bernhard, the former American City editorial director, thinks continuity is the key. “It has taken the whole mix of ingredients, hard news, special sections, book of lists, records, events to make it work and some features that work in some cities don’t work in others,” he said. “As long as we remember local, local, local, all is good.”
Crumpley, at the Los Angeles Business Journal, agreed that local news that’s exclusive is the key to winning the competitive race whether online or in print. He said that he’s begun thinking about whether business journals should leverage their newfound status as community leaders to vet or endorse political candidates. But he said he’s not totally convinced it’s a good idea. “Endorsing candidates would be a big change,” he said.
He said he’s convinced prospects for young journalists are “not great but pretty good” in part because daily newspapers have shed so many staff that some replacement is inevitable. Business journals are competitive at entry level, and they appeal to the specialized, multitasking style of reporting that’s now being taught at many undergraduate journalism programs.
Whether the platform is digital, print or a hybrid, business journals have substantial influence in metropolitan markets across North America. Bernhard said that as the economy emerges from recession, smaller companies are looking for information about how to cut expenses, how to deal with health care reform and how to succeed in the 21st century.
“There needs to be a redefining of old beats that recognizes businesses as consumers and concentrates on how they can improve efficiency through the use of technology,” said Bernhard (right).
In the 1970s and 1980s, business journals stumbled on to a huge story — how businesses were adapting to dramatic changes in technology and the economy. They took advantage of the declining cost of publishing software and technology to build substantial news operations.
To survive in the 21st century, business journals will have to keep their entrepreneurial edge but not lose sight of the old-school values of beat development, scoops and detailed reporting that are the foundation of their success. It may be tempting to look for cost-cutting formulas or a cookie-cutter approach but that may not be the way to operate for the long run.
Bernhard thinks that part of the successful formula is recognizing that ideas don’t always translate exactly from one market to another.
“The local business news strategy is rock solid and unchallenged,” said Miller.