Like all small business people, the young men who founded Sonoma Business magazine in 1976 were optimists at heart. The proof? They started a business magazine in a primarily agricultural county in the depths of one of the worst recessions to hit the United States since the Great Depression. Then as now, the Middle East was on everyone’s mind; the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-1974 had sent the United States into an economic tailspin. Americans were grumbling about sky-high prices at the pump ($1.20 a gallon at the height of the crisis in 1974) and thinking about trading in their gas-guzzlers for smaller cars. (Sound familiar?) The Vietnam War was sputtering to its ignoble close. Nixon had just left office in disgrace, and the nation was muddling, rather glumly it must be said, through the Ford interregnum. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who conservatives love to hate and liberals love to love, was surprising everyone with his strong, early showing on the Democratic campaign trail.
It was in this climate of uncertainty and malaise (Carter’s much-derided term for it) that William Bryon, David Bolling and John Brill decided to launch a new magazine aimed at business people in Sonoma County. As they explained in their debut issue, “Sonoma Business is conceived as a practical tool for the local businessperson or for the person looking into a local business. It is no-nonsense, dollars and facts oriented, and at the same time, highly readable.” The first issue featured an interview with David Packard of the then-new Hewlett-Packard plant in Santa Rosa, an essay on the current downturn, called “Is There Recession Here?” as well as the kind of profiles of local business people that were to become a staple of the magazine over the years.
A bright idea and energy to burn
Bryon, Brill and Bolling had come to Sonoma County fresh out of college two years earlier. They’d purchased the then-ailing 100-year-old weekly Santa Rosa News Herald and turned it around by burning the candle at both ends in the way only 20-somethings can afford to do. Bryon, who’d worked on a regional magazine in New Hampshire, was hot to try a magazine and convinced the other two to give it a shot.
“We were three young guys who were willing to work day and night,” remembers founder David Bolling, now a writer and filmmaker who lives in Glen Ellen. “That was part of the formula. We were investing sweat equity. What drove our optimism was the yellow area on the Rand McNally map—that is, the populated areas—going north on 101 from San Francisco. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Sonoma County was going to grow. We figured we couldn’t go wrong. As it turned out, it took longer than we expected, but eventually, the business environment here really did go through a transformation. We were a little ahead of that wave, but it caught up with us. If we’d started the magazine a little later, it would have been more profitable sooner, but it worked.”
The mission of the magazine, Bolling says, was to take a feature-oriented look at the business environment in the North Bay. “There were so many interesting people around at the time in the business community, people like Hugh Codding and Henry Trione. There was this whole cadre of civic leaders who, in many respects, represented and drove the business climate of the North Bay. It seemed at the time like there was an inexhaustible supply of interesting people and businesses and issues to cover.”
Sonoma Business magazine’s advertising rationale back then—identical to the NorthBay biz advertising rationale today—was that the magazine was a precisely targeted “guided missile,” as the publishers wrote in their introductory column—a rifle shot as opposed to a shotgun approach to reaching the region’s movers and shakers.
Like many new publications, the magazine had a rocky start, going through two editors in its first year. Bolling was busy editing the Santa Rosa News Herald, so the publishers recruited Guion Kovner, who later worked at The Press Democrat, to be the magazine’s first editor. Verna Mays came on board as the magazine’s third executive editor in 1977—almost by default, she says with a laugh. “The last editor had a temper tantrum and quit, and I was already working at the Santa Rosa News Herald, so I just stepped into the job.” She stayed there for eight years, writing stories, editing and doing layout and design.
“I was really the person who introduced the whole idea of art direction to the magazine,” she says. “The first issues looked like something out of the 1950s.” She also oversaw the development of many of the magazine’s longest-running features, including the Golden Egg Awards, a profile of the county’s top businesses, that has morphed over time into the Sonoma 500 and now the North Bay 500.
Mays remembers fondly the first story she ever did for the magazine—a profile of Henry Trione—and an entire issue devoted to architecture in Sonoma County. “I interviewed architect Larry Simons, and we did a whole series on local architects and the buildings they designed. I’ve always loved art and architecture, so that was an issue I was really proud of.”
Mays left the publication in 1984, a few months after it and the Santa Rosa News Herald was sold to Lesher Communications Inc. (LCI), a regional newspaper syndicate that owned a couple of dozen suburban and rural newspapers in Northern California, including their flagship publication, the Contra Costa Times.
“I didn’t stay very long after Lesher bought it,” Mays says. “Everyone started leaving because, from a journalistic standpoint, Lesher was a terrible company to work for. It basically brought in a whole bunch of middlemen types who didn’t know anything about journalism.” Mays went on to do freelance writing and editing as well as public relations.
The Lesher years
Lesher Communications (LCI) hit the North Bay like a whirlwind in the early 1980s, buying up a dozen local newspapers. “By the time they were done,” Bolling remembers, “I think there were only three papers left in the North Bay that weren’t part of their chain.”
Sonoma Business magazine was the only glossy magazine that Lesher owned, and LCI, Bolling says, never understood that the economics of monthly magazines were different from those of daily newspapers. The company assigned a general manager (making a six-figure salary, Bolling notes) to oversee the magazine and the News Herald. Both the magazine and the newspaper were profitable when Lesher purchased them, but profitability suffered under LCI’s corporate stewardship.
Bolling stayed on for three years after the purchase, but he remembers that period as one of the bitterest in his life. “I quit the News Herald in 1986 in frustration,” he says. “It was my baby, and I was disappointed with what was happening to it.”
With Bolling’s departure, Joan Voight became the magazine’s senior editor. Voight, a longtime journalist who later worked at the PD and Diablo magazine, saw her role as professionalizing the publication. “When I first started working there, it was really more of a vanity publication that was published quarterly and sent to people for free,” says Voight, who now lives in Healdsburg and writes books. “Our vision was to make it a real journalistic publication that took on real substantial issues and also to get the magazine on a paid subscription basis, which is what we did.” She is particularly proud of the stories the magazine did on the decline of unions and the efforts of women to break into the social world of business in Sonoma County. (Remember the uproar in the mid-’80s when women began joining traditionally all-male service organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis?) Voight, who loves the feeling of discovering new trends, says the magazine predicted the rise of the celebrity chefs at a time when most people thought chefs were just, well, cooks.
Voight did a splashy spread on up-and-coming celebrity chefs, putting John Ash on the cover. In general, she says, she worked to make the magazine more lively and up-to-date. “My graphics person and I had this unofficial rule about having no more than five or six photographs of middle-aged, balding white guys wearing glasses per issue,” she says with a laugh. Under Voight, the magazine went from a quarterly publication to a bimonthly, then to once a month.
When Voight moved on, her managing editor, Carol Caldwell-Ewart, took the helm. Caldwell-Ewart, a former mental health worker, had never worked in journalism before she came to Sonoma Business as an intern in the mid-’80s. Now editor of Practical Winery and Vineyard magazine, her vision for Sonoma Business was very personal. “My vision of the magazine was based on my dad. My dad was a small business owner and entrepreneur who didn’t have time to take a lot of business management classes. When I was working for the magazine, I always kept him in mind when thinking of stories: What kind of thing would he want to know? What would help him understand the larger trends that would help him run his business better? I really saw the magazine as a vehicle for helping people do business better—give them ideas, encourage them to stretch, help them recognize trends that could affect their business.”
Under Caldwell-Ewart’s reign, the magazine won a Sonoma County Press Club award for investigative journalism for a story she wrote with Jennifer Bard and Jim Dunn called “Drug Bucks,” an investigation into where all the money from drug busts went. The magazine also sponsored a series of conferences for small business owners called Discover Solutions. For a brief time during Caldwell-Ewart’s tenure, Joan Voight convinced Lesher to try and launch a lifestyle publication called 101 North, a general interest magazine modeled on regional magazines like The Texas Monthly, Chicago magazine and the very successful Diablo magazine in Contra Costa County. (The Contra Costa-based Lesher had always envied the success of Diablo—one of the country’s most successful regional magazines and just about the only publication in Contra Costa that he didn’t own.) Joan Voight came back to edit 101 North, which was published inside of Sonoma Business magazine, but the fledgling magazine lasted only a few issues. “The company didn’t want to put the resources in the magazine that it would have required,” Voight says philosophically. She left for Diablo soon after and became editor of Diablo Business.
A Dunn deal
Although Sonoma Business magazine continued to perk along editorially, even taking an intriguing investigative direction under the leadership of new editor Jim Dunn (another intern turned editor), the magazine continued to lose money for LCI. When an economic downturn in the late-’80s coincided with LCI’s purchase of a $45 million printing press for the Contra Costa Times, the syndicate began scavenging capital from its perimeter papers to pay its bills. When LCI closed down the Santa Rosa NewsHerald, Dunn could see the writing on the wall.
“By then, according to Lesher’s reckoning, Sonoma Business was losing $10,000 per month,” says Dunn, who had once done a class project on Sonoma Business and the News Herald for his Masters in Organizational Development at SSU. “LCI felt the magazine was unprofitable, but I knew it was just poor leadership on their part. No one really cared about the magazine but me and our little staff. I took a significant risk buying the magazine, but I thought I could run it better than they were doing, and it turned out I was right. We turned it around pretty quickly.”
For the next 10 years, Dunn was the owner, publisher and senior editor of the magazine, taking on a variety of controversial issues and specializing in investigative pieces. “We were going head to head with The Press Democrat’s business section and doing a great job. We used to scoop them all the time,” Dunn recalls gleefully. His favorite piece, he says, was an interview he did with Mike Rosen, a Republican real estate agent turned con man, who conned dozens of prominent local citizens out of millions of dollars in a fraudulent real estate scheme.
The birth of NorthBay biz
Eventually, however, the wear and tear of wearing three hats at a monthly magazine—publisher, editor, writer—began to tell, and by 1999, Dunn was looking for a buyer for the magazine. At the same time, a trio of investors from Chicago, Norm and Joni Rosinski and Joni’s brother, John Dennis, was on a swing through California looking to buy a small suburban newspaper chain. They came to the North Bay to look at The Healdsburg Tribune and The Windsor Times, and when those failed to enchant, their broker suggested they check out a local B to B magazine that was up for sale. They had never considered buying a magazine. The Rosinskis were newspaper people. Norman had been president and publisher of the Midwest Suburban Publishing Group, a subsidiary of the Chicago Sun-Times that published a chain of newspapers in suburban Chicago. Joni was the ad director. John had owned and operated several businesses throughout his life. But there was something about Sonoma Business magazine that intrigued them.
“We recognized that it had a venerable tradition and thought that, with our knowledge and experience, we could take it to the next level,” Norm Rosinski says. They bought the magazine in June 2000 and, over the next few years, reinvented it from top to bottom, hiring new editors, writers, columnists and designers. Local businessman Toby Tatum volunteered to write a column about running a small business. Local techie and Harvard-MIT graduate Mike Duffy was tapped to write a column about technology in business. The opinionated Rich Thomas, a longtime winegrower who'd recently retired as head of Santa Rosa Junior College’s viticultural program, was a natural choice for VineWise.
Expanding the magazine into Napa and Marin was a part of the new owners’ business plan from the very beginning. For several months in 2002-2003, the magazine’s name morphed every few months, going from Sonoma Business to a three-county edition known simultaneously as Marin Biz, Sonoma Biz and Napa Biz. (Try explaining that one at the beginning of every business phone call.) By 2003, the name of the publication and its logo settled where it is today: NorthBay biz, with the names Sonoma, Marin and Napa listed beneath it in the old Sonoma Business magazine’s original typeface.
Managing editors came and went quickly in the first few years until school teacher-turned-editor Cathy Fisher landed at the magazine looking for her first foothold on the journalistic ladder. She found it here and shepherded the magazine through the first few years of its ongoing redesign. (She has since moved on to Wine Business Monthly.) Laura Hagar succeeded her as managing editor until the end of 2005, when Julie Fadda took over the position (she’d shared it with Laura beginning in the spring of 2005). Julie was promoted to editor in early 2007, and associate editor Alexandra Russell took over as managing editor. David Brawley, who joined the staff in spring 2008, oversees the graphics department.
Norm Rosinski thinks of the magazine’s graphic and content redesign as a natural evolution. “We’ve literally added dozens of new features, columns and departments as we’ve built and bolstered content. Increasingly, readers tell us the magazine is a must read from cover to cover!”
And that evolution isn’t over yet. “Pursuit of excellence is an ongoing thing,” Norm says. “As you fulfill the first goals you’ve set for yourself, you set others. We’re not done here, by any means. Our goal is to provide business people in the North Bay with news they can’t get anywhere else. It’s like our motto says, ‘Covering local business isn’t just something we do…it’s all we do.’”