Sunday, May 6, 2012

Commentary: Roanoke Chamber Subverts 'Buy Local' with Magazine Deal

Editor Dan Smith (left), Publisher Tom Field at the printer.
In yet another startling example of local institutions failing to support local businesses, the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce has entered into a contract with Hampton/Richmond-based Virginia Business magazine to produce a business publication in the Roanoke and New River Valleys.

 In a press release, Chamber President Joyce Waugh is quoted as saying, “Roanoke Business [magazine] is a welcome addition to the region. It will provide additional insights and an in-depth look at the large, medium and small enterprises that form the base of our economy. Building on the strength and reputation of Virginia Business, Roanoke Business will highlight exciting developments in our area and bring a new, expanded level of coverage in regional business, financial and economic news.”

The new publication will have its offices inside the chamber facility.

Chamber President Joyce Waugh
The release goes on to say that the new magazine “will provide a definitive look at business news in its coverage area.” The strong suggestion here is that this region has no business publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Valley Business FRONT, a chamber member since its inception, is four years old and was preceded by the Blue Ridge Business Journal, which had a run of more than 20 years before FRONT began.

The Journal, which was owned by a local daily newspaper, was closed two years after the FRONT’s owners left to start FRONT. The FRONT has (and the Journal had) loyal followings, has won numerous awards—many of them for community service—and neither publication was ever sponsored by a chamber of commerce.

“We have been a leading advocate of buying local for our entire history,” says FRONT Publisher Tom Field. “We don’t just advocate it, either; we do it. One of our most significant expenses is printing, a cost that could be reduced by quite a bit if we shopped out of town. But we won’t do that because we believe in local businesses.”

Virginia Business, whose primary coverage areas are Virginia's large population centers in the center, east and north, is a magazine known in large part for its advertising-driven list of “best” lawyers in the state and its close ties with chambers of commerce.

Smith says, “We have always been known for our journalistic independence and at a time when publications are under economic stress to compromise that business model, it is especially important to maintain that."

Waugh explains that the chamber was having difficulty selling its own magazine and was looking for a distribution partner. She says she contacted the owners of Virginia Business about a possible partnership and that they were open to the deal. She did not contact publishers in this region, she says.

The new magazine will piggyback on Virginia Business’s circulation in the region, coming wrapped with the magazine monthly. She says that she does not view Virginia Business as a competitor for Valley Business FRONT because “the magazines are so different.”

Field and co-owner Smith expressed “surprise and disappointment” that the chamber would enter “a business deal with a business based in Richmond and Norfolk that is a direct competitor of a respected local company.”

Field says, “This is especially important coming as it does during the most challenging economy of our lifetime. That we weren’t even contacted about the chamber’s need is certainly surprising. I applaud competition and free enterprise more than anyone, but I also consider it the chamber's duty—and privilege—to support the very businesses it is supposed to serve. From catering an event, to leasing vehicles, to building a facility, any responsible business advocate would look to the local suppliers first, much less passing over one of its own members and stalwart champions."

The chamber’s decision to go outside the region to find a publishing partner continues a string of decisions to go far and wide to find working partners, ignoring talented and experienced local companies. The City of Roanoke, and several other institutions, have been severely criticized for giving plum contracts to firms outside the region.

Says FRONT’s Smith, “This simply tells us that these organizations do not believe our businesses are good enough, and that is maddening. Our people and our businesses are among the country's best in any discipline or endeavor you can imagine, but as long as our own institutions beat the drum to lure outsiders, stripping jobs and local investment, we have a steeper hill to climb. It’s a damn shame.”

(See Dan Smith's personal commentary on his blog, here.)

1 comment:

  1. It's sad news to learn of the alliance of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce with the Richmond-based publication Virginia Business. After all, the publication has no advertising office nor editorial office in our region. But if it's any indication of the effectiveness of the new alliance, just try to find the press release! One must wonder whether either side wants anyone to know about the new arrangement.

    Roanoke's own Valley Business Front is first and foremost a business publication, based here, with writers and contributors familiar with the business as well as cultural and political milieu of Roanoke and the surrounding region. Does the fact that the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce overlooked the publication say anything about how it views local businesses? Or does it say more about what it knows about local businesses?

    To quote from the RRCC website:
    “Your commitment to the region is demonstrated by your membership in its largest, most influential business organization.The Chamber membership sticker in your window sends a positive message about your business.”
    What does this decision say about the Chamber's commitment to the region?

    And to quote, again, from the RRCC website:
    “The Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce is a prominent and pro-active force in government affairs, speaking on behalf of the region's businesses. We add value to our business community and to the community at large by advocating policy initiatives that are critical to economic growth and job creation.”
    How does going outside the region for partnerships speak on behalf of the region's businesses?

    Stepping back from a first reaction to the news – perhaps the RRCC is looking for ways to extend reach into the other areas of the Commonwealth and the region. I can accept that as a possible rationale for the alliance. However, it sounds to me like the publication is focused on “Roanoke business”. Why not use the best local resource on Roanoke business to do the work to broaden the access to this area?

    To say the least, it sounds like a poorly reasoned decision. The say the most, it's an affront to the Front and the local business community.