Virginia Business marks 35 years as state’s source for biz news
In March 1986, the first issue of Virginia Business magazine off the press was gently wrapped in a baby blanket, cradled in a basket and delivered to its then-owners at the Media General building in Richmond.
“We all felt like we had given birth,” recalls Lisa Antonelli Bacon, one of Virginia Business’ first staff writers. “We were very proud of ourselves and proud of Media General for being willing to take that step.”
Thirty-five years later, that then-infant magazine is now a full-fledged, grown-up publication that has matured and adapted over the years. It has expanded from a monthly magazine, adding daily online business coverage and a variety of annual special issues and events, including the Virginia 500 issue and Virginia’s Best Places to Work.
Virginia Business was established by Richmond-based Media General, which at its height was a Fortune 500 company that owned several television stations and newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Tampa Tribune. Dissolved when it was acquired for $4.6 billion by Nexstar Broadcasting Group in 2017, the company traced its origins back to the late 1880s.
During the heady growth years of the 1980s, Media General took notice when a crop of regional business publications began popping up across the nation. Business magazines such as Regardie’s, a Washington, D.C.-region publication that ran from 1980 to 1992, inspired Media General to aim high when it launched Virginia Business.
“Our goal was to be the premier business publication in Virginia,” says Jim Bacon, who was hired as the monthly magazine’s founding editor in 1986 and later became its publisher. With Media General’s financial backing, Virginia Business had ample funds to pursue its mission of being the commonwealth’s primary source for statewide business news.
‘A big deal’
Virginia Business didn’t want to be mistaken for another Richmond-focused magazine, despite having its headquarters in the capital city. With plenty of regions and sectors to cover, the magazine strived to give readers an understanding of what “makes an industry tick,” Jim Bacon says.
“We all had this idea that we were doing something important; we were doing something that other publications weren’t doing,” recalls Lisa Antonelli Bacon. “We really were just carving it out of stone.”
As is still customary today, Virginia Business hired freelancers across the state to cover stories for the print magazine. Although none of the magazine’s original staff writers and editors had experience with business journalism specifically, Jim Bacon recalls, the publication’s staff would spend weeks and months researching for articles.
“In the early days, we pretty much devoted our lives to the magazine,” says Lisa Antonelli Bacon. “We would spend the day together working, then go to the Marriott for drinks after work.”
At that time, Virginia Business’ present-day owner and publisher, Bernie Niemeier, worked as an executive in the circulation marketing department at Richmond Newspapers Inc., a Media General division that operated the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Richmond News Leader.
By 1990, Media General was going through an “acquisition growth spurt” that lasted well into the early 2000s, Niemeier says. One of the properties acquired was the Tidewater Virginian — a “spunky little magazine,” says Jim Bacon, which Virginia Business bought about a year into its operations, adding experienced staff writers and salespeople with extensive knowledge of the Hampton Roads community.
“Virginia Business was a big deal,” says Susan Horton, who had been with the Tidewater Virginian for five years before its acquisition by Virginia Business. “Always was a big deal from the get-go as far as the reputation of the magazine.”
Horton, who worked as sales manager at Virginia Business until her 2017 retirement, recalls the magazine’s sales staff focusing its outreach on forging close ties with the business community at lunches, events and conferences. “That’s how the magazine grew,” she says. The magazine’s outreach efforts evolved over the decades to include tech-focused email and online marketing in addition to traditional in-person relationship-building.
What helped Virginia Business survive and thrive was a willingness from both editorial and sales staff to experiment by launching special projects, events, themed issues and various targeted special publications.
Former Virginia Business Managing editor Paula Squires joined the staff in 2001 and oversaw several new projects, including the launch of a Virginia Business publication solely focused on the Roanoke region. Virginia Business published 54 editions of Roanoke Business, which ran as a standalone monthly magazine from 2012 to 2016.
Working at Virginia Business is “a great way to learn a little bit about a lot of different industries,” says Jessica Sabbath, also a former managing editor. Sabbath, who left the magazine in 2019, recalls how the Port of Virginia became one of her favorite beats to cover during her 13 years with the magazine. As a special projects editor, she was tasked with putting together the magazine’s annual Maritime Guide even though she didn’t have any prior knowledge about the commonwealth’s extensive ports system. Immersing herself in reporting on the Hampton Roads economy and logistics showed her the impact that the Port of Virginia has on Virginia’s economy.
Robert Powell was the magazine’s longest-serving editor. A longtime associate business editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he helmed Virginia Business from 2004 until his retirement in 2019, overseeing the launches of a variety of special issues and events, including the magazine’s annual Big Book and Virginia Business Person of the Year issues, as well as regional digests for Roanoke, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
“I thought that was great that we covered our tracks enough to not be considered just a Richmond magazine,” Powell says. “One of our big aims was to keep track as much as possible with things all over the state and travel the state as much as we could to make sure people knew we were interested in their part of the state.”
‘A giant role’
During Squires’ and Powell’s tenures, the publication also moved toward becoming more than a monthly magazine, adding daily and weekly email newsletters covering the state’s business news. The publication’s website, which was one of Jim Bacon’s last initiatives before he left the magazine in 2002, has evolved in recent years into VirginiaBusiness.com, a daily business news site.
In 2007, just before the Great Recession hit, Media General appointed Niemeier as Virginia Business’ publisher. The recession resulted in layoffs at Media General at the same time the media conglomerate had taken on a great deal of debt to buy large-market television stations. The company wasn’t focused on funding smaller publications like Virginia Business.
Determined to keep Virginia Business operational, Niemeier partnered with Virginia Capital Partners to purchase the magazine from Media General in 2009. The investment firm then sold the publication to Niemeier in 2017, making him the sole owner of Virginia Business Publications LLC.
“I just think it’s really important for the commonwealth if we have a healthy, independent publication like Virginia Business that covers business on a statewide basis,” Niemeier says, explaining why he acquired the magazine’s parent company. “It’s not something every state has.”
And as local newspapers continue to decline in circulation and staff size, Virginia Business is filling a gap left by publications that no longer have as many resources left to cover the business community.
“People sometimes take business stories for granted, or they think they’re going to be really boring. But they play such a big part in our lives, whether it’s a new building being built or someone coming in and creating a lot of jobs,” says Veronica Garabelli, who joined the magazine in 2012 as a special projects editor and now teaches journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Most people spend most of their time at work,” she says, “so it plays a giant role in all of our lives. Virginia Business is the only publication that’s really dedicated to looking at business in the state at a statewide level.”