Grand Rapids Youve Been Great

September 22, 2003
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When we launched the Grand Rapids Business Journal in September 1983, no publication devoted entirely to business news served any Michigan in Michigan. We were a pioneer, one of the few business journals anywhere in the country.

Crain's Chicago Business, the granddaddy of all business journals, had been published for several years. The Scripps-Howard newspaper chain had experimented with business publications in certain markets and decided to leave the niche. But at the time we were considering our concept, the only publication we were directly aware of was Crain's Chicago. So we owe a bit of gratitude to Grandpa Crain's.

As a businessperson, you can appreciate the risk involved in a small market, noestablished business news presence, considering a business newspaper. But we (original editor John Brosky and I) started researching and planning until he said, "Hey, it's time to get off the pot!" So we launched our initial effort, a monthly business newsletter we at first dubbed the Pearl Street Journal, in honor of our office location.

The idea was to assemble the necessary resources (writers and news sources), establish some key readership targets, and limit the effort to sell advertising. And after a year of this pilot project, we would survey our "charter" subscribers and make decisions accordingly.

We decided not to sell any advertising that first year, only sponsorships for a few fixed positions. We wanted to focus on the content and on our readers, and not focus on advertising at the time. We felt if we were doing a good job of covering business news and meeting the needs of our readers, advertisers would eventually recognize what we were doing and respond accordingly.

After nine months, we began to survey our charter subscribers. And what we found was that they wanted more — much more. They had been deprived of business news for so long by the local daily newspaper, they were "starving." One reader responded that we were like United Nations' envoys "providing food to the starving masses." We were like a breath of fresh air, a new face in the community. So I guess we got it right.

The survey results provided the basis for enlarging the publication to tabloid size in 1984, and we've been a tabloid ever since. A year later we increased our frequency to weekly.

We had several scoops the first year, even as a newsletter. Two that come to mind were the Horizon Oil scam and the telephone answering services scam. Such articles cemented in the minds of our readers that they could expect fairness, accuracy and completeness, good solid journalism, and respect for business news.

To this day we maintain many of our original news sources. You won't always read about them in these pages, as most prefer anonymity and confidentiality, but they continue to make important contributions to our publication. Many of our charter subscribers are still subscribing and are among our staunchest supporters.

Our advertisers have prospered over those 20 years, and we appreciate their support. Some have been with us the entire 20 — without a name change! They have taken a personal interest in our success and continue their strong support.

One question that often comes up in conversation is, "Where did the idea for the Business Journal originate?" Several answers might be given, but the real answer goes back to my seven years as a Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce executive.

My first encounter with the business news deprivation syndrome was in 1972. A reporter from the local daily said it was tough filling the Sunday business section every week, so they padded it with stock listings (which no serious investor pays any attention to, because if they wanted accurate stock reports, they'd subscribe to the Wall Street Journal). That same reporter said the business desk was the daily's ultimate dead-end job.

The other tidbit that stuck in my gut was the comment that nothing of consequence ever happens at the Chamber of Commerce, so I really didn't need to call the daily with any Chamber news; there was none. And that was my second day on the job!

Obviously the daily didn't have much respect for either business news or the Chamber back then.

The Chamber's primary communication tool during my seven-year tenure was Grand Rapids Magazine, which at the time was owned by the Chamber. We always had material to publish, but it was clear the magazine needed to open up to a wider audience with both content and circulation. Within a few years, we were able to transform the magazine into a city magazine and create a separate newsletter for Chamber members. My phone was always busy with people giving me story ideas and gossip, but one question still remained, "How could a Chamber of Commerce ever publish unbiased business news?"

Thus, in reality, the genesis for the Business Journal goes back to those initial experiences in 1972.

In December 1979, I successfully bought Grand Rapids Magazine from the Chamber, along with my original partners. But that's another story that I will leave for Grand Rapids Magazine's 40th anniversary issue next year. Finally, this was the opportunity … a chance to provide the community with outstanding publications that would really serve the community.

I love to look back at those 20 years. The dearth of business news in Grand Rapids, as mentioned above, was a reality in Grand Rapids. To amplify this point for our more recent subscribers, prior to 1983 business news in Grand Rapids did not exist. Quoting a former Business Journal editor, "Grand Rapids was a bit like the Soviet Union. There was the official newspaper, the local daily, which you could not rely upon, and then there was the real news network — the grapevine." Yes, 20 years ago business news traveled mostly by word of mouth, person to person.

The main forums for business news in Grand Rapids were as follows:

  • Breakfast at the Ottawa Grill, Fables Restaurant or Big Boy. (Only Big Boy remains.)

  • Lunch at the Pen Club, University Club or any country club, if you were well connected.

  • Lunch at Afternoon Delight, the Press Club, Van Raaltes, Churchill's or Z's, if you were not. (Z's is still around, and the Press Club will reopen soon, but the others have disappeared.)

In other words, business news was exchanged just about anywhere two or more people gathered. How times have changed! Now the status of business news reporting has been elevated from ugly stepchild to favorite child. It is now one of the media darlings.

As I alluded to earlier, the local daily had been sitting on the business beat for years, believing that if it did not know about something, then it could not possibly be news. The Business Journal not only proved otherwise, it caused the local daily to pay attention to business coverage in a way it never had. Suddenly it dedicated more attention and people to this long-neglected section. And several years later, others also began to enter the market by providing business advocacy, information, or a combination of the two, but often shying away from hard news.

We started with a dream and an unknown future. Week after week the Business Journal ran articles about business before any mention ever appeared in the daily, or worse, never appeared in the daily at all. This is the typical daily response to competition, and is often cited as the reason markets need more than one newspaper. The Business Journal filled the void for those who take their business news seriously and don't like having it ignored or dumped into 10-second sound bites.

None of this would have been possible without an outstanding staff. I consider our staff among the best in their fields. They do their jobs extremely well. They make the Business Journal the outstanding and respected product it is, and I would not trade them for the staff of any other business publication. No way!

Over the years we have attracted the best and brightest to carry out our mission to provide our readers the very best business news coverage possible: all business, all the time, every week! And we work very hard to fulfill that mission by being objective, straightforward, balanced and accurate. Twice in our history, independent national editorial judging panels have honored us with the overall General Excellence award for business journals, which recognizes both editorial and design excellence. In addition, we have won the national investigative reporting award three times, and recently our Web site won the national Web site award of excellence.

I think about some of the outstanding people I have had the privilege of knowing these past 20 years. It is an awesome feeling. I don't have enough space to recognize everyone, but I appreciate all their support, encouragement, ideas and commitment.

As I mentioned in my January column announcing our anniversary, the success of the Business Journal was a mirror for what was happening during the past 20 years throughout the entire Grand Rapids area. It is now a familiar story, and flipping through the pages of the Business Journal, you will find business stories that are well told, concise and accurate, right down to the names and faces of our local risk takers.

We now sport the tag line "The Business Newspaper of Metro Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon & West Michigan." This recognizes both our basic mission as the business newspaper of West Michigan and our primary coverage area. Everyone recognizes Grand Rapids is the financial hub, the core, the engine that drives West Michigan, but it takes the entire region to make this economic engine run smoothly and profitably.

And what about the next 20 years? They will certainly be exciting.

In terms of economic growth, history suggests the next 20 years will not be appreciably different than the past 20 years. The names, faces and projects may change, but we still will continue to move forward. Some of the changes, as we have seen recently, may involve painful transitions for some, excellent opportunities for others. But the pace of change will be in the traditional Grand Rapids "passbook savings" style … slow and steady. And we will continue to see more partnerships develop. As an example, just look up at "Pill Hill" on Michigan Street, our very own medical-health corridor.

In our planning process, a critical concern is to find replacements for those leaders who have brought us this far. Growth in Grand Rapids has typically come from within, and the next generation — the late boomers and generations X, Y or Z — are now coming into power. The Business Journal seeks to identify these future leaders and we will continue to do that.

The world is changing rapidly. It is shrinking before our very eyes, and the interconnectivity between cultures and countries is astonishing. Some countries are resisting these forces, but that seems a short-term strategy. And just as the forces behind these changes cannot easily be altered and thus present significant public policy and economic challenges, many entrepreneurs will see these challenges as opportunities. Change will occur whether we want it or not, and it will happen at blinding speed.

If you don't believe it, consider what major events, inventions, conditions and transitions have altered the world during the past 100 years. No, better yet, what transformations have occurred in the past 20!

We will be there to translate these issues and transformations, and help our readers navigate through it all. And, God willing, I will bring you up to speed 20 years from now.

Thank you, staff. Thank you, readers. Thank you, advertisers. And thank you, Grand Rapids. You have all been great!

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