Friday, February 27, 2009

FRONTList15: The Entrepreneurs

Following are the brief biographies of the FRONTList15: The Entrepreneurs from the March 2009 issue of Valley Business FRONT magazine:

David Booth founded Quality Coffee Company in 1981 after years of working for H&C Coffee, a Roanoke company that distributed its own brand of coffee regionally. Booth has been especially active in small business causes over the years and is a supporter of a number of them.

Vinod Chachra is president and CEO of VTLS, a library technology business in Blacksburg. He is an internationally recognized lecturer and consultant in the field of information system planning. In 1975, he designed the original software that in 1980 became Virginia Tech Library System (now called VTLS), which incorporated in 1985. The system provides state library systems to more than 900 libraries in 32 countries worldwide.

Bonz Hart founded Meridium in 1993 with an eye toward assisting asset–intensive industries in performance management. Hart has worked for industrial software companies, and has been part of start-up management teams, DuPont, where he created a team of technology partners to develop plans that helped significantly reduce operating costs. He helped form a consortium of companies to create an enterprise plant software system for manufacturing. He is president of Meridium, an international company.

Victor Ianello, CEO of Synchrony, launched the engineering/manufacturing business in the basement of his Roanoke County home a little more than 15 years ago. He had moved to Roanoke to work for Magnetic Bearings. His company has folded in a number of engineers, several from GE in Salem and Ianello has been a much-honored entrepreneur in the region. The company has grown significantly in recent years and has seen an infusion of funds from venture capitalists.

Nayier Imam has a dossier so long and complex that it is difficult to digest. In short, he is involved in business and strategic planning; international government relations particularly India and Dubai, general business management, education and training; neuroradiology, biostatistics and even a soft drink company, Nerd. Among his entrepreneurial efforts: co-founded HealthCite, raising $10 million dollars to develop this WebMD competitor; co-founded PanteQ Corporation, a software development company; founded MedicalOasis, an imaging center; founded American Teleradiology (which merged and went public in 2006); became an executive producer of an international film, Real Premonition. This could go on for weeks ...

Cameron Johnson, who is still just 23, has been busy since he was about nine, creating businesses, writing books, making lots and lots of money ($15,000 a day as a 15-year-old owner of an Internet company). He was an advisory board member to a Japanese company at 15 and was the subject of a biography the same year. He gives talks on business to international audiences and his newest book, You Call the Shots, is a top seller. He has also written You Call the Shots: Succeed Your Way—And Live the Life You Want—With the 19 Essential Secrets of Entrepreneurship. He’s a friend of Oprah’s, appearing on her “Big Give” television show. He is working to promote financial literacy among the young.

R.J. Kirk of Third Security in Radford is this region’s only billionaire and he is one of the wealthiest people in Virginia. Founder of New River Pharmaceuticals and co-founder of King Pharmaceuticals. Harvest Pharmaceuticals grew from New River Pharma. Helped fund a $5 million investments in Roanoke’s Synchrony (whose owner is Victor Ianello, above) and IntelliMat. Holds a law degree. Owns a large farm in Pulaski County. Sits on board of visitors at Radford University.

Todd Marcum and Tony Pearman were a couple of creative advertising people working for somebody else in 1993 when they determined they’d make a go of it on their own. Access was born and from the very beginning, there was steak with the sizzle. Very early, their little company—based in Roanoke’s business incubator—dominated the region’s advertising awards, taking control from the largest firm west of Richmond and it has rarely let go since. The company has expanded into public relations and is now full service.

Kent A. Murphy founded what was to become Luna Innovations in 1990 and has been president, CEO and board chairman since 1992. Murphy was a tenured professor in Virginia Tech's Bradley Department of Engineering before branching out. He has more than 35 patents, which have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in product revenue. In 2001, he was named Virginia SBIR Entrepreneur of the Year, and in 2004 was recognized by the governor and the Science Museum of Virginia as the state's Outstanding Industrialist of the Year. Murphy is a founding member of the Virginia Research and Technology Adivsory Committee and a number of industry-related commissions and committees. He has testified before Congress as an expert witness.

Mary Guy Miller is the entrepreneur’s conscience in this region. She is not only a recognized visionary, she is also one of the most generous and available mentors in the region. She is president and founder (in 1991) of Interactive Design and Development Inc. (IDD) in Blacksburg, an award-winning information technology firm. Clients have included Dow Chemical, Hewlett-Packard, Citibank, Mead Johnson and Dole. Her company’s applications are used in public schools, universities and businesses across the country and throughout the world. She was recognized in 1996 as one of the Top 100 Multimedia Developers in the United Statesand she is chairwoman of the ITIB Executive Evaluation and Governance Committee. She is a founder and officer in the NewVa Corridor Technology Council (NCTC). She earned a master's of information science and a doctorate in instructional design from Virginia Tech. She is Assistant Governor for Rotary's District 7570 and a member of the Board of Directors for National Bankshares.

Dan Sable is president and CEO of 16-year-old VTP Inc in Blacksburg and a founder of the new VPT Energy Systems. VPT Inc. designs and manufactures DC to DC converters for military, aerospace and satellite operations. Customers are big: Lockheed Martin, ITT, Boeing, NASA among them. VPT Energy is involved in electric utility smart grid, plug-in hybrid-electric cars and intelligent power systems. Has his master’s and PhD from Virginia Tech and an SB from MIT. Has been chairman of Tech’s ECE Industrial Advisory Board.

Cindy Shelor has spent nearly half her life doing a man’s job—or at least what used to be considered a man’s job: she heads a roofing company. Shelor is the president of John T. Morgan Roofing and Sheet Metal Company, which recently celebrated its 75th birthday as a family enterprise. She’s been there 25 of those years. She, of course, is not the founder (her grandfather is John T. Morgan), but growth under her guidance has been steady and solid. Deeply involved in the community ( boards of Junior League, Virginia Western Educational Foundation, BBB, Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, among her activities). Quiet, modest and extremely competent.

nanoCom founder and president, Bob Summers has worked in the development of Internet communication software since 1992 and is considered a leading videoconferencing technology expert. He has been a consultant, software designer, author and speaker. MBA from MIT, training from Harvard Business school and a Computer Engineering degree from Virginia Tech. He co-founded 460 Capital Partners, a first seed and early stage fund and EnergyWare, a green computing company.

Ed Walker has been responsible for some of the highest-profile developments in downtown Roanoke in recent years: Colonial American Bank Building, Hancock Building, Cotton Mill and has had a hand in rejuvenation of Grandin Village. Helped found Downtown Music Lab. Considerable quiet work with entrepreneurs. Generous and attentive mentor to many. Former lawyer (W&L law) and graduate of UNC.

Tamea Franco Woodward founded customized metal finisher East-West Dyecom in 1987 after working as a watch maker. She took a class in metal working and discovered anodized aluminum and ultimately started a company from her home (with $1,300). She pumped gass and worked a lathe in the early days, keeping the company going. A woman of many—and constantly expanding—interests and a vast amount of curiosity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Energized Board hopes to Jump Start a Revitalized Mill Mountain Theatre


Jack Avis isn't certain what to call it: "It's the honeymoon or the purgatory stage," he says. That's quite a difference, but it fully represents where Mill Mountain Theatre's future rests at this moment.

Roanoke's only professional/equity live theater will be closed for nearly a year as it attempts to pull in some financial support, to close old accounts, to determine exactly what it is and how that fits in with the community. MMT had, frankly, lost its way in recent years and dwindling support--the economy aside--underscored that. There was not the feeling during the Patrick Benton administration that the theater was the strong part of the community it had been. Benton was the artistic and executive director brought in to do wondrous things. He didn't. The productions were stale and little-attended, he fired a popular children's theater director and MMT felt apart for the first time in memory.

Lawrence says the board refuses to put the blame for the demise anywhere but on itself: "We accept the blame," she says emphatically.

Now, the board of directors--which, admittedly, had not been as involved during the past couple of years as it had been in the past--is trying to clean up a mess of Bush proportions. It is trying to avoid bankruptcy with very little money, appease season ticket holders who have no plays to attend, pay vendors it can pay and talk the rest into making donations. It's an extremely difficult position in the best of times and MMT now has to deal with a faltering economy and the gorilla in the room, the new Taubman Museum of Art, whose financial needs are huge.

Board President Jack Avis (Avis Construction) and member Cynthia Lawrence (Design Marketing) talked candidly today about the future of Mill Mountain Theatre and admitted that "what happened needed to happen." Lawrence says that the original plan was to keep MMT open through April and close only two of this season's plays, but circumstances resulted in the abrupt announcement to close in January (with "Driving Miss Daisy" finishing its run Sunday and the rooms going dark).

MMT is working out a deal to retain a core of three employees who've shown loyalty, creativity and a set of necessary skills. It has been "working with people holding debt," says Avis, and attempting to placate disgruntled season ticket holders--people who could be instrumental in a comeback.

The board has had a number of long, involved meetings about the future and from the conversation with us, it appears its members are fully open to suggestion.

Already, MMT has put together task forces on resources and tasks and an advisory board with, as Lawrence points out, "a mix of skill sets" that can be of benefit to the theater over the long haul. Business is heavily represented, since its support is vital. Board members are talking to members of the business community, hoping to elicit financial support and volunteers.

For years, MMT was a nationally-recognized innovator in small-city theater. It was studied, copied and deeply admired. It was--and is--the only artform in the Roanoke Valley that has reached that exhaulted status. The new art museum aspires to that level of respect, but it is new and, though its architecture has received good reviews and its collection is admirable, it has yet to achieve the full appreciation the theater has had for years. Frankly, that takes time and consistent success.

MMT's makeover comes at a time of declining contributions to the arts and attendance that is down across the board. The mix is also out of kilter at Mill Mountain, which had 40 percent seat purchases and 60 percent corporate sponsorship during the most recent season. That's an exact flop from what is anticipated and what is desired. People simply stopped coming and business has had to take up the slack--which didn't happen to the degree necessary to keep the theater open.

Avis and Lawrence point to the strong desire to make the arts community in this region much more of a cooperative, supportive effort. Arts executive directors have met monthly for years and these two board members would like to see board members from the organizations emulate that meeting. They'd like to see egos checked at the door and would anticipate participants would take part on an equal basis.

Much of this is realtively new-think for this region, but it makes considerable sense. When Susan Jennings was head of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge and Kay Strickland ran the transportation museum, they were constantly urging the arts community to combine forces. It happened sporadically, but never with the full effect it could have had if it had been the success they envisioned.

Now would be a good time to try that again for the sake of everybody. The business community would do well to support this effort and the resurgence of Mill Mountain Theatre specifically. A healthy, vibrant arts community has helped make this region desirable for those opening businesses and that community must remain alive if we are to benefit from its impact.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Grading the Niche Web Sites


Is the New Media a new publishing medium? Publishing—as in newspapers, magazines.

Well, sure. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Depends on who’s doing the publishing.

How are our leading local publications doing on the Web? As with any transition, some are thriving, others struggling, some don’t seem aware that the game has changed and is continuing to change.

As the newest print publication in the region, Valley Business FRONT decided to take a look at some of the print community’s Internet incarnations. The FRONT is included in the evaluations and even though it pays me for this story, I was instructed to be fair, honest and straightforward.

That look, with grades, follows, but first a caveat:

How we respond to Web pages is as subjective as our response to other media. A feature—or lack of one—that annoys me may please you.

Bear in mind that Web sites—good ones, anyway—change constantly: today’s flaw may be repaired or re-designed tomorrow.

So take a grain of salt as you take a look at, in alphabetical order, the Webward migration (or at least presence) some of our area’s print publications.

Bella Magazine
Editorial Content: None
Depth: Single Web page
Web Specials: None
Evaluation: Not every publication has to be on the Web, and with its no-content page, Bella has clearly chosen not to be
Grade: Not Enrolled

Blue Ridge Business Journal
Editorial Content: Some articles and columns
Depth: More promised than published: the Archives have been labeled “Coming Soon” for years (you can still get former Editor Dan Smith’s column, though)
Web Specials: Current weather, stock market, online subscriber survey
Evaluation: Minimal design, next to no Web styling of what content is available online, lack of archives have plagued the Journal on the Web forever, and continue to
Grade: C-minus

City Magazine
Editorial Content: Everything you see in print is here
Depth: Easily navigated and exceptionally rich arts, culture, entertainment, dining listings; thorough almost to a fault
Web Specials: Whole issue archives back to August 2006 available (and viewable) online
Evaluation: Commitment to thorough listings/coverage makes this a real resource for Roanoke residents and a good recommendation for visitors
Grade: A

Prime Living
Editorial Content: Less than you’d expect from the homepage; some columns and articles but not a large selection of current material
Depth: Archive of columns, but only through mid-2005
Web Specials: Good blogs, but too infrequently updated; good archival material regarding genealogy, but also in need of updating
Evaluation: An attractive site that promises more than it delivers
Grade: C

New River Valley Magazine
Editorial Content: Issues can be downloaded but not viewed online
Depth: Not much online
Evaluation: Failure to update the online newsletter regularly sends a clear signal that the site is moribund
Grade: C

Our Valley (Various publications including Cave Spring Connection, Christiansburg News-Messenger, Fincastle Herald, New Castle Record, Radford News-Journal, Salem Times Register, Valley Sports, Vinton Messenger)
Editorial Content: Feature stories re-used across multiple papers; currency of community-specific news varies by community
Depth: Depends on the community; editorial features could be updated more frequently
Web Specials: “Do It Yourself Community News” is a resource that could (and should) be better promoted
Evaluation: Ambitious site portal site that, with more regular attention and updates, could become an important resource for smaller communities
Grade: C

The Roanoke Star-Sentinel
Editorial Content: News consists of teaser paragraphs with links to other sites
Depth: Not much original editorial content; good use of online forums
Web Specials: Cam-Links to area video feeds; ambitious effort to spark online commentary and discussions, but little participation
Evaluation: Good effort to provide an outlet for locals to sound off on large array of subjects—lack of response may say as much about the audience as the Web site
Grade: C

The Roanoke Times
Editorial Content: Daily newspaper (local and regional news, sports, etc: national news and columns, comics and other syndicated materials not here)
Depth: Excellent for local/regional news; searchable archives
Web specials: Blogs, searchable classifieds, obituary guest books
Evaluation: Straightforward if not particularly ambitious translation of newspaper to Web; easily navigated
Grade: A-minus

The Roanoke Tribune
Editorial Content: Minimal and in need of a good copy editor
Depth: More advertising than editorial (and aggressive in its use of popup ads; most material is undated, making it difficult to determine its age
Web Specials: Mostly advertising links
Evaluation: Unfulfilled promise and in need of a redesign (and a copy editor)
Grade: D

Roanoke Valley HOME
Editorial Content: Next to none
Depth: Page is aimed at advertising sales
Web Specials: None
Evaluation: Essentially an advertising brochure online
Grade: Not Enrolled

Roanoker Magazine (and Blue Ridge Country)
Editorial Content: Primarily a “teaser” site designed to promote print publication; most current editorial content offers a brief sample followed by instructions on how to acquire a copy of the physical magazine
Depth: Not as deep as one would expect from a publisher with such a rich archive of good material
Web specials: Nice “Best Of” selection of past articles, complete and readable online; some Web-only content, including interviews
Evaluation: Well-designed and easily navigated, but the heavy use of “excerpts” carries high frustration factor
Grade: C-plus

16 Blocks
Editorial Content: Blacksburg arts, culture and entertainment magazine completely reproduced online
Depth: Back issue archives available online
Web Specials: Online-only content, reader comments
Evaluation: Hip, breathless style (and design) works well for university-town street-scene content; in your face but easily navigated
Grade: A

Valley Business FRONT
Editorial Content: Print magazine can be displayed online (in a click-launched viewer: pages turn with sound effects, but otherwise no interactivity; no original editorial content
Depth: Back issues (all four of them) can be viewed online
Web Specials: Links to editor’s and publisher’s blogs
Evaluation: The new area magazine may be breaking ground with its print contents, but the Web site, while clean and well-designed, takes less advantage of the medium than it could—Web addresses in articles, for instance, can’t be clicked when viewed online
Grade: C

Interview With Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade


Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade agreed to answer questions via e-mail from Valley Business FRONT provided we agreed to publish the answers without editing them. Company policy prevents us from doing that in our print version of the magazine, but in the online version, where there are no space limits, we have made an exception to our policy.

This interview covers a good bit of ground, but was conducted before The Times announced a year-long wage freeze, a five-day employee furlough during the first six months of the year and an internal memo laying out plans for a major re-design of the paper.

Though most of Meade’s answers shed no new light, we present them as given, for the record. Alison Weaver, a former Times employee who now writes for FRONT, posed the questions. Here they are:

Some members of the community have expressed concerns that The Roanoke Times might fold and the region would be left without a daily newspaper. How do you respond to such concerns?

I’d like to answer your last question first, as I want to reassure you and your readers. The Roanoke Times and remain a strong business. We continue to be the regional news and information leader in print and online market share. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to deal with some of the business issues that many of the larger metropolitan newspaper companies have had to manage over the past year. Roanoke is an excellent newspaper market, and our readership is among the highest in the country.

This is both a challenging and exciting time to be in the media business. 2011 will mark our 125th year of covering the region. Throughout our history in this community, we have always responded and changed with the times, and we will continue to do so.

We take our position in the community seriously and are committed to all of our customers—readers, advertisers, online users and community partners. Across the company and products, we strive to serve them better than anyone else can, to compete better and remain relevant and valuable, now and in the future.

Though many aspects of delivering the news and information are changing rapidly, we are changing as well, and we plan to be around for a long, long time.

How has the cancellation of plans to sell The Roanoke Times affected newspaper operations?

The sale process did not distract us from doing our jobs. Now that we’re no longer on the market, we continue to remain focused on our performance and our products, finding new and better ways to serve readers with a variety of products in print and online.

If a group of local investors wanted to make a bid to purchase the newspaper, what would Landmark Media Enterprises require before considering the offer? What would be a ballpark range of the asking price?

If a local group of investors were to be interested, they would need to contact Landmark Media Enterprises, our parent company.

The Roanoke Times’ sister paper in Norfolk has announced cut backs in staff. Are layoffs planned in Roanoke as well?

We do not anticipate a need at this time to make deeper, widespread staff reductions in 2009. We’re known for having a lean workforce compared to other newspapers our size, which is an operating strength. We continually examine our staffing structure, seek new technologies and new ways of working to do our jobs better and lower our costs. This has allowed us to reduce the size of our workforce even more in the past few years, mostly through attrition and other voluntary means.

We’ve actually expanded in some other areas, too; for example, we have grown our online business significantly over the past decade. And we’ve added niche products: We bought Smith Mountain Laker magazine in the summer of 2007 and formed what is now known as Laker Media, because we saw a growth opportunity in that part of our market.

How many people does The Roanoke Times employ? How many of these are newsroom employees (reporters, editors, designers,, graphic artists and photographers, including the New River Valley Bureau)?

Our employment levels fluctuate with seasons and business needs, but currently we have just under 400 full-time equivalent positions at The Roanoke Times (including the NRV Bureau),, BRBJ and Laker Media. There are about 106 employees in the newsroom, by far the region’s largest and most respected newsgathering team.

What are some of the primary community services that The Roanoke Times supports? What is the estimated value of these direct and in-kind contributions?

I’m proud to say that through the Landmark Foundation, the company has made gifts in our region totaling more than $300,000 a year in recent years. Our donations have primarily benefited organizations representing human services, higher education and cultural art institutions. This does not include our in-kind giving through our promotions department, which is significant. Our employees serve on boards and volunteer their service at many community organizations. We will continue to serve and help improve our community, because we love it and care deeply about its future.

From an advertising standpoint, what consequences has the economic downturn had on The Roanoke Times? For example, have national accounts lagged while local advertising remains steady? Which areas have been hardest hit?

Our success is dependent on the strength and growth of the community. As the community feels the effects of the economy slowing down, so do we, in some of our business lines. This is why it helps us to have a diverse line of products, including targeted or zoned products as well as products with a broader mass reach, to appeal to an array of customers. The interest to advertise with us is still strong, as our print and online products reach nearly 400,000 people a week. The main reason for our success is that our products work extremely well for our customers.

What sort of response from the public did The Roanoke Times receive to the recent rate increase? With the decline in fuel prices, might the rate increase be reversed?

Let’s face it, no matter what the product or service, consumers don’t like price increases. We had not increased our retail price at newsstands since the mid-1990s. Again, we’re working to remain a valuable resource to our readers and users. And price increases, as we all know, are a standard part of doing business.

Rising fuel prices did contribute to our increased expenses, but so have other factors. As you may know, the cost of newsprint has gone up nearly 40 percent this year alone.

Newspapers nationwide have been facing the same cost pressures that we face locally, and nominal price increases in both single copy and home delivery have been a necessary common practice in recent years.

Just think about how much value the newspaper has for just 75 cents a day.

The Chicago Tribune Co. recently filed for bankruptcy, citing huge debts related to sharp declines in advertising. How fiscally sound are The Roanoke Times and its parent company, Landmark Media Enterprises?

We’re a private company, and we do not share our financial information. But I can tell you that we are a well-managed, successful company.

The Detroit Free Press / Detroit News is considering ending home delivery four days a week. Is this a cost-cutting move that The Roanoke Times might consider?

No, ending home delivery for several days a week hasn’t been discussed.

Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth recently issued a memorandum to staff stating, in part, “We must focus better on what the consumer indicates they want, and be less quick to emphasize only what we think is important.” Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy?

We agree with the philosophy of seeking consumer input to guide our efforts. The Roanoke Times has invested and sought out consumer and advertiser input for many years through surveys, readership studies and direct interactive tools. In the past year, we’ve started a reader panel that has more than 600 members. Each week we invite them to comment on news content and advertising. We have numerous blogs and message boards and have been known for years for the many “letters to the editor” that appear on our opinion pages. So we make it a practice to seek out public comments—whether to provide us readers’ opinions on national news or to help us shape our products.

Some critics of The Roanoke Times say it has a liberal stance that is out of touch with the largely conservative readership in the area. How do you respond to those critics?

Our editorial pages stimulate thought and discussion and provide a public forum for ideas. We invite everybody to read our opinion pages and respond. We appreciate our readers, and we want to hear what you think.

(Alison Weaver is a former copy editor at The Times.)

Rocky Times for The Roanoke Times?

(Update: In late March, popular, award-winning Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton was reportedly asked to resign for unstated reasons. Thornton says he was told he could resign or be fired, according to a Tim Jackson story in the New River Voice. Thornton chose the former. A complete report on what has become something of a cause celebre in the New River Valley, where Thornton reported, is found at the New River Voice Web site. Pay special attention to the many comments (including those who say they have canceled subscriptions. Word from inside the newsroom is that the editors are not happy this got out. It's easy to understand why that would be the case.)


As the only daily newspaper between Lynchburg and Bristol—a roughly 200-mile swath of Southwest Virginia—The Roanoke Times has long had a commanding presence. Although the paper is in the business of reporting news, not making it, the Times has been a frequent focus of media attention in the past two years. Its recent rocky economic road has been relatively public. Here’s what it has looked like under the current publisher.

February 2007: Debbie Meade is named publisher, succeeding Wendy Zomparelli. With a 25-year career at the Times, Meade had worked most recently in the advertising department. She had spent years in HR, as well.

March 2007: The newspaper publishes a column by editorial writer Christian Trejbal and posts on its Web site the state police database of the names and addresses of everyone in Virginia with a permit to carry a concealed handgun. According to the Times’ own account, the move “ignited a firestorm” of controversy, prompting hundreds of complaints and cancellations of subscriptions. The database was removed the next day but the newspaper became a target of scorn for gun rights advocates across the nation and in Canada.

April 2007: A gunman opens fire on the Virginia Tech campus, killing 32 students and faculty before killing himself. As media from around the world descend upon Blacksburg, The Roanoke Times finds itself manning command central as the go-to source for information about the tragedy. The paper later wins numerous awards for its reporting and photography and is widely commended for grace under pressure.

July 2007: The Times announces “voluntary retirement incentives” for 21 employees age 58 and older with at least 15 years of service. The paper also announces that it has already eliminated or frozen 27 jobs in the past year, bringing overall reductions to more than 10 percent of its staff of 450. “We’re dealing with business conditions unprecedented in our long history,” Meade says. (Among those taking the offer—from the newsroom—were reporters Donna Alvis-Banks, Ray Reed, Paul Dellinger, photographer Gene Dalton and copy chief Nancy Caldwell, representing considerable institutional knowledge. Longtime reporter/editor Leslie Taylor simply “leaves.” (She landed with TAP.)

Others leaving with or shortly after Meade’s arrival included executive editor Mike Riley (to the Congressional Quarterly), editorial page editor Tommy Denton (retired), HR head Camille Wright Miller and CFO Carl Wright, at least two of whom had their eyes on the publisher’s office.)

September 2007: After accepting the voluntary retirement incentive, long-term reporter Joe Kennedy, writer of the popular “Cuppa Joe” column, begins blogging about the experience. He notes that even before he had decided to accept the option, the paper had begun a promotional campaign for its columnists that omitted him. His comments about the newspaper and members of management are less than complimentary and are read by hundreds.

January 2008: Times’ parent Landmark Communications announces it plans to break up and sell its newspapers, Web sites and cable TV franchises, including The Weather Channel and The Roanoke Times.

Spring 2008: It is widely rumored that the Times’ most likely purchaser is WEHCO Media, of Little Rock, Ark. Headed by Walter E. Hussman Jr., the company has a good reputation among journalists as being dedicated to local news and investigative reporting.

June 2008: Three black reporters resign shortly before veteran reporter JoAnne Poindexter, the paper’s first black reporter, announces her early retirement. A front-page article about her 35-year career states, “Poindexter points out that decision-makers in the news department are almost exclusively white, which puts a limited perspective on what goes in the paper each day.” Managing editor Michael Stowe concedes, “We need to do better.”

August 2008: A front-page story on The Wall Street Journal focuses on Carilion Clinic’s dominance in the area’s health care industry. The article reports that Carilion was displeased with Times reporter Jeff Sturgeon “aggressive” coverage of it and withdrew much of its advertising until the reporter was replaced. In the WSJ story, Times editor Carole Tarrant says, “We’re covering Carilion like we always have and always will, and have no plans to change how we cover Carilion.” She does not address whether the reporter was reassigned at Carilion’s behest. Carilion strongly denies it asked.

September 2008: The Columbia Journalism Review publishes a story online titled “Something’s Rotten in Roanoke” that further questions whether The Times acquiesced to the wishes of Carilion and removed the reporter. The CJR story is given prominent display by other local media.

Summer and fall 2008: Reporters and editors begin resigning in rapid succession. Within about a four-month period, 12 employees, representing about 10 percent of the newsroom, have gone. Included in the exodus are Mark Morrison, head of the New River Valley Bureau; Dan Beatty, director of photography; and John Jackson, head of Newsroom staff hovers around 100, down from estimates of 125 in 2002. The 125 number is cited by Executive Editor Carole Tarrant and former Times editors, she says. Others have estimated it higher. (NOTE: Tarrant took issue with the "about 145" employees figure originally used in this post, saying in an e-mail, "According to our records, we concluded 2002 with a newsroom staff of 115 full-time employees and six part-time." Tarrant queried former editors Rich Martin and Mike Riley, who remembered 125 employees. Alison Weaver says she had three different sources with numbers ranging from 124 [plus a number of interns] to 155 at different times during the past few years and that she used something of an average. We have changed the original number to reflect Tarrant's research, but emphasize that an honest and professional effort was made by Weaver to get a correct number.)

Management begins carting out empty workstations and fills the space with a large couch and easy chairs. The paper is taken off the market by Landmark Media Enterprises, saying that buyers can’t get credit and that values have declined because of falling advertising volume. Meade announces more job cuts may be coming. The Blue Ridge Business Journal, owned by The Times, loses 20-year editor Dan Smith and GM Tom Field, who found Valley Business FRONT.

November 2008-January 2009: Among those leaving the paper for various reasons are former business editor Rob Johnson, veteran reporter Jay Conley, columnist Shanna Flowers and long-time marketing manager Nan Mahone, who has been intensely active in the community. The paper announces it is freezing wages through 2009: and that employees will be required to take five unpaid days off on specific dates.

The Times announces a year-long wage freeze and the requirement that employees take five extra days off without pay between January and the end of June. That would work out to about 1,800 work days if The Times has 360 employees. Additionally, an inner-office memo outlines a new format for the paper which would combine the national and local news, editorials, weather, business and community news in one large section. There was also an unconfirmed report from an insider that The RT was considering eliminating at least one day’s paper, probably Monday, at least for the short-term.

(NOTE: Tarrant again takes issue with the assertion that there is consideration of eliminating one day's paper: "As far as I know, there have been no discussions here about eliminating one day's paper. From my own perspective, I believe part of our enduring strength lies in our daily publication. Eliminating one day's issue breaks that routine with our readers." Editor Dan Smith says this came from inside the newsroom "from somebody who would be in a position to know." He insists it was "not reported as fact.")

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Alison Weaver resigned her position as copy chief at The Roanoke Times in August 2008.

Grading the Region's Niche Publications

(This is a more complete article from Doug Cumming than was run on the pages of Valley Business FRONT in the February issue.)

Washington & Lee University journalism professor Doug Cumming, a former journalist and magazine publisher, was asked to grade the most prominent of the region’s periodicals.

He did not judge them against each other, but on their own niches. He was not asked to judge the region’s largest publication, The Roanoke Times, concentrating instead on the alternatives. Here’s his report, which differs from the printed version in that it has more criticism for each publication.

City magazine Grade: C+
This full-color, un-slick monthly bills itself as the region’s premiere arts and leisure guide, but lacks anything like actual coverage of arts and leisure. Vague puff-pieces snuggle next to ads about the same event. Local personalities are allowed to smile in text and pictures, but we get no good storytelling or background. Some articles have familiar by-lines – Joe Kennedy of the Roanoke Times’ “Cuppa Joe” fame and Gene Marrano of WVTF’s “Studio Virginia” – but it’s never clear what any of the articles are about. A focused headline or a pull-quote might help. An extra copy-editor would help too. The table of contents I saw listed “Brest Cancer Awareness” and the “flavours” listing of restaurants started with an index box referring to pages 92 through 100 when the magazine had only 84 pages (and the index box was on page 71). If you like the ads and the listings, it’s worth the price: Complimentary.

Blue Ridge Country Grade: A
Thick and slick, this 20-year-old subscription-only magazine is conservative in the best sense. The layout, photographs, editing, sense-of-itself: everything seems restrained, tradition-loving and, well, almost dull until you spend some easy time with it. Unlike Southern Living, this bimonthly claims a lifestyle niche that is so geographically specific and alive, “conservative” comes to mean quietly progressive – in the Scots-Irish tradition of defending the beauty of the Southern mountains (nine states are included) and the individualists she breeds. (On the other hand, all those log-home ads whisper a wee contradiction.) The editors, writers, and photographers obviously love this ancient geological saddle ridge of the American South, and love this magazine like blood kin.

Bella: the regional magazine for women Grade: B+
“B” is for beautiful, or the Italian bella, and the plus is for having so many fine writers fill this highly formatted, colorful tabloid. But it falls off my “A” list because it makes little effort to go beyond its formula of writing-workshop women breezily talking to the “bella girl” reader about their lives, feelings, relationships – almost anything except southwest Virginia (with the exception of “lunch date,” a restaurant-sponsored Q&A with “some of the area’s most public women”). Well, the formula works for a similar freebie called Skirt!, so this monthly might as well offer the package to lovely local advertisers. But can’t it use those upscale ad dollars to do a little more reporting on life in the Valley?

16 Blocks: Blacksburg Arts & Culture Grade: A –
The name both limits and raises my expectations, marking this tabloid’s territory as the hip four-by-four blocks at the center of Blacksburg. As a monthly alternative paper on the thin side, 16 Blocks rocks. It mixes short articles on local oddities with columns such as an “Ethos” feature (anti-anti-abortion in the one I read) and an ironic political “rant.” And it keeps its editorial content separate from its ads, each on their own pages. But it’s upfront about who pays the piper and makes this little paper free. It runs a full-page map with locations of each advertiser, going well beyond its 16 blocks. “We could not exist without them,” they say, which is more honest than slipping favors into editorial content.

New River Valley Magazine Grade: A-
An upscale bimonthly lifestyle magazine for the region can’t be criticized for being pretty, practical, local, easy on the eyes, and clean in the hands. Indeed, some may find New River Valley Magazine attractive. The problem is that a good magazine needs a personality, and this means something distinctive in the front and back of the book. Other than a soft-spoken Letter from the Editor on page 9 and a spotty “Upcoming Events” on pages 60-61 (in a random issue), no distinctive columns or calendars give this publication character. The design is minimalist. There are no unifying design elements, end-sign dingbats, or even “2008”s where the folio date appears on each page. Every article is packaged on one or two pages. Decent articles and ads, for the most part, are all you get.

Blue Ridge Business Journal Grade: B
Local business tabloids have become indispensible, and Blue Ridge Business Journal has filled that niche for twenty years for Roanoke and environs. Its Business Digest briefs, People thumbnails, and On the Record courthouse squibs still give it the look of the business fortnightly of the region. But this is awfully pale tea. It you want to see what a good metro business journal should look like, see the thick weeklies that bigger cities like Atlanta and Charlotte enjoy, and in competition, not bed, with their local daily paper.

Valley Business FRONT Grade: A-
What’s this? It is, you’ll notice, curiously small. But so is payment for this assignment, which, I swear, has no influence whatsoever on this grade. After twenty years of editing Blue Ridge Business Journal, Dan Smith seems to have a lot of contacts with local entrepreneurs and writers, a lot of energy, and a pro-business zeal that animates this new monthly thing he edits. The witty, color-coded organization, once you de-code it, makes for a good read or good riffling (if you just want to read the “Executive Summary” atop each story). The gung-ho slant for business and sixteen “diverse business professionals” comprising an editorial advisory board worry me a bit. But if Smith’s modest demurrer – “We’re journalists” – is also taken to authorize an independent watchdog role, then the advice and consent from business can only help.

The Roanoker: Metropolitan Roanoke Lifestyle Grade: B+
In the 1960s, Harold Hayes at Esquire and Clay Felker at New York inspired city magazines to be local versions of that magazine revolution: impious, snobby, graphically wild, creatively written, and lifestyle-useful. The Roanoker is a good city magazine journalistically, but fails to show any signs of having been inspired by that revolution – much less updating or localizing it. It does borrow Esquires “Dubious Achievement” award – renamed “The Train Wreck Awards” this year – but the magazine feels like something out of the ‘50s. At least it hasn’t let glitzy advertizing muck up the journalism.

The Roanoke Star-Sentinel Grade: D
For decades, the Roanoke Times and World News were among the most conservative papers in Virginia. But today, perhaps the Roanoke Times does occasionally demean conservatives. . . by running letters and guest editorials expressing downright daffy right-wing theology. But trying to counter a relatively liberal opinion page of Roanoke’s pretty darn good surviving newspaper with this weekly ragamuffin of wasted pulpwood makes no sense. It actually puts conservatism in a bad light, but not because of any extremism in this flimsy sheet. This is simply bad community journalism – random news judgment, dull guest columns, blurry and poorly framed photos and graphics. And this is an alternative to the Roanoke Times?

Play by Play Grade: A-
A regional monthly on sports – now there’s a niche I wouldn’t have thought of. Sports Illustrated proved that a magazine can appeal to fans of various sports only with high quality writing and pictures. Daily and weekly papers take care of the games and scores. Play by Play can’t compete with that, or match national sports mags in appearance – the truth is, it looks pretty shabby except on a few four-color pages. But the long articles connect, telling interesting sports stories loaded with history and people (their names always in boldface type for grazers).

The Roanoke Tribune Grade: B
It may not look like much, but the Tribune deserves respect as an authentic survivor of an embattled form of community journalism, the African-American press. Sure, it runs feel-good AP wire on page one, and doesn’t follow AP Style in its copy. And its news judgment seems odd. But its journalism comes out of a history of segregation. Good black weeklies like this (founded 1939) were advocates of equality and recognition, not “objectivity,” while giving black social life and religious faith the respect they never got in the mainstream (white) press. The Tribune still serves its community. Compare the anti-liberal Star-Sentinel, which runs an eye-center ad at the bottom of page one. The Tribune runs in the same space this bit of advocacy: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children can fly.”

Salem Times-Register, Cave Spring Connection, Vinton Messenger, New Castle Record, Radford News Journal, News Messenger (Christianburg ) and Fincastle Herald & Botetourt County News. Grade: D +
I’m sorry if this grade fails to recognize that one or two or these weeklies seem a bit better than a D+, like maybe the ones in Salem and Fincastle, which claim histories going back to 1854 and 1866 respectively. But they all seem under the same dreary spell of an owner, Main Street Newspapers, determined to see how little money it takes to put out a community paper and bring in piddling ad revenue. The same by-line might appear on every front-page story, and under all the photos. Ads litter the front pages. Their idea of community news is a church bulletin, and even these might require a correction. This third-rate journalism is particularly dismaying in a time when hyper-local is supposed to be the salvation of the news business. I read in the current issue of Quill magazine that feisty, independent startups are finding success in the boondocks. Watch out, Main Street Newspapers.

Smith Mountain Laker.Com Grade: B
A good publication can help build a community. A ritzy community, conversely, can underwrite a pretty nice-looking magazine like Smith Mountain Laker.Com thanks to real estate ads. But it only goes to show what advertising money can do. Real estate-sponsored journalism has never been about real community, nor was it ever in danger of foreseeing the collapse of the real estate market. As Sinclair Lewis once wrote, it’s hard to get someone to understand something when their job depends on not understanding it.

Roanoke Valley Home Grade: A
This glossy upscale shelter magazine debuts at a thin 52 pages, with a cover story on the art of table napkin presentation for the civilized Southern home. This may not be your cup of tea. It’s not mine. But such as it is, like a tasteful table setting, it comes close to a flawless little home and garden quarterly. Now let me get on to something I enjoy reading.

Publications in the Roanoke and New River Valleys


16 Blocks

PUBLISHER: Hart Fowler
EDITOR: Amy Splitt
TARGET MARKET: Arts and entertainment patrons in the New River Valley

Bella Magazine
PUBLISHER: Beck Media Group
EDITOR: Lauren Ford
TARGET MARKET: Women, western Virginia

Blue Ridge Business Journal
PUBLISHER: Times-World Corp.
EDITOR: Elizabeth Parsons
TARGET MARKET: Business Lynchburg, Roanoke Valley, New River Valley
FREQUENCY: Bi-weekly

Blue Ridge Country
PUBLISHER: Leisure Publishing
EDITOR: Cara Ellen Modisett
TARGET MARKET: Mountain areas of Southeast
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands
FREQUENCY: Bi-monthly

City Magazine
PUBLISHER: Karl Phillips
EDITOR: Paul Chambers
TARGET MARKET: Arts and entertainment patrons, western Virginia

Cave Spring Connection
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
TARGET MARKET: Southwest Roanoke County

Fincastle Herald
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
TARGET MARKET: Botetourt County
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands

Mountain Homes
PUBLISHER: Leisure Publishing
EDITOR: Norma Lugar
TARGET MARKET: Mountain areas of Southeast
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail subscriptions
FREQUENCY: Bimonthly

New Castle Record
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
EDITOR: Meg Hibbert
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands

New River Valley Magazine
PUBLISHER: Country Media/ Phillip Vaught
EDITOR: Joanne Anderson
TARGET MARKET: New River Valley
FREQUENCY: Bimonthly

The News Messenger
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
EDITOR: Heather Bell
TARGET MARKET: Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands
FREQUENCY: Twice weekly

Play by Play
PUBLISHER: John A. Montgomery
EDITOR: John A. Montgomery
TARGET MARKET: Roanoke Valley sports fans
FREQUENCY: Every four weeks

Prime Living
PUBLISHER: RP Publishing
EDITOR: Sandra Brown Kelly
TARGET MARKET: People age 50 and up
FREQUENCY: Bimonthly

Radford News Journal
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
EDITOR: Heather Bell
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: By Mail, news stands
FREQUENCY: Twice weekly

The Roanoker
PUBLISHER: Leisure Publishing
EDITOR: Marie Hodge
TARGET MARKET: Western Virginia
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands
FREQUENCY: Bimonthly

Roanoke Star-Sentinel
PUBLISHER: Stuart Revercomb
EDITOR: Gene Marrano (news) and Pam Rickard (features)
TARGET MARKET: Roanoke Valley
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands

The Roanoke Times
PUBLISHER: Landmark Communications
EDITOR: Carole Tarrant
TARGET MARKET: Southwestern Virginia
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Delivered to subscribers, news stands

Roanoke Valley Home
PUBLISHER: West Willow Publishing Group
EDITOR: Meridith Ingram
TARGET MARKET: Roanoke Valley and Franklin County
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands
FREQUENCY: Quarterly

Salem Times-Register
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
EDITOR: Meg Hibbert
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands

Roanoke Tribune
PUBLISHER: Claudia Whitworth
EDITOR: Claudia Whitworth
TARGET MARKET: Roanoke Valley African-American community
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mailed, news stands

Roanoke Valley TV Spectator
PUBLISHER: Chuck Denison
EDITOR: [none]
TARGET MARKET: Roanoke Valley

Senior News
PUBLISHER: Jeffrey K. Williams
EDITOR: Ellen Deaton
TARGET MARKET: People age 50 and up

Smith Mountain Eagle
PUBLISHER: Womack Publishing Co.
EDITOR: Rob Lyon
TARGET MARKET: Smith Mountain Lake
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands

Smith Mountain Laker Magazine
PUBLISHER: Laker Media (division of Roanoke Times)
EDITOR: Andie Gibson
TARGET MARKET: Smith Mountain Lake residents
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Paid subscriptions, news stands
FREQUENCY: Bimonthly

Valley Business FRONT
EDITOR: Dan Smith
TARGET MARKET: Business executives, Roanoke and New River Valleys
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mailed, some news stands

Vinton Messenger
PUBLISHER: Main Street Newspapers
DISTRIBUTION METHOD: Mail, news stands