VOL. 126 | NO. 118 | Friday, June 17, 2011
DuBois Pioneer In Biz Media
By Bill Dries
When Barney DuBois helped spearhead the launch of the Memphis Business Journal in 1979, he had no way of knowing that his efforts would forever change the media landscape in the Mid-South.
(Photo: Gil Michael)
But that’s exactly what he did after quitting his job at The Memphis Press-Scimitar and leading a startup weekly newspaper (initially called Mid-South Business), the brainchild of Memphis advertising executive Ward Archer Sr.
“Barney was pretty much in the right place at the right time when the audience for news first began to fragment into groups who wanted more specialized news in areas such as business,” said Elinor Grusin, professor emeritus of the University of Memphis journalism department and former colleague of DuBois’ at The Commercial Appeal, where he worked during the 1960s.
“He brought a much-needed focus on local business news and did this with solid professionalism,” she said. “Not to be overlooked is that he had fun doing it.”
At the time, most daily newspapers paid scant attention to business news (The New York Times only launched a stand-alone business section in 1978), and network news virtually ignored business (Nightly Business Report began airing on public television stations in 1979).
It was this void locally that Archer and DuBois sought to fill.
DuBois, who died June 11 after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the age of 68, took a risk and changed not only his life but the Memphis media market.
The business community’s perception of The Commercial Appeal was that it was anti-business, relentlessly publicizing the negative news while rarely noting positive developments.
“Their editors often made the comment that they weren’t there to support business,” said Ralph Horn, former chairman and CEO of First Tennessee Bank whose career at the financial institution spanned 40 years. “You don’t want or need somebody to carry water for you, but you also don’t want them just reporting the negatives.
“The Memphis Business Journal and Barney really filled a great void,” he said. “They reported the facts, and I always thought they were fair and balanced.”
Dan Wilkinson, chairman of Colliers International’s Memphis division, formerly known as Colliers Wilkinson Snowden – one of the oldest and most respected commercial real estate firms in town – called DuBois and the Memphis Business Journal “pioneers.”
“They opened up a whole new arena in news print for commercial real estate and for the business community in general,” Wilkinson said. “They also gave the community a new outlet in terms of advertising – a new form in which to tout our products.
“Their newspaper went to the business community, and that was the community from the standpoint not only of real estate but all kinds of services, was strictly geared to the audience that we were trying to reach.”
Recalling the newspaper’s early days, MBJ editor Bill Wellborn – who worked for DuBois for nearly 20 years – said Archer “sort of halfway knew Barney and just asked him to lead the way.”
“He was always ready to jump ship, so to speak,” Wellborn said of DuBois. “It was a big career change for him to go from a big city newsroom to a small office where he was pasting up the paper and driving it to Missouri to be printed and things like that.”
Shortly after selling the MBJ to American City Business Journals Inc. in 1997, DuBois recalled the challenges his fledgling newspaper faced in a print media market that was dominated by The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Press-Scimitar.
“For the first three or four years, we had been like furry little mammals running under the feet of the big dinosaurs,” he recalled. “It had come time to evolve into larger mammals and compete at the food source.”
At the time, The Daily News had not yet celebrated its 100-year anniversary, Memphis magazine was just a few years old, and The Memphis Flyer and The Memphis News, both weeklies, were years away.
So not only was the Memphis Business Journal unique as a startup newspaper, it was among the first niche publications focusing squarely on the business community.
Wellborn remembers how devoted DuBois was to serving that audience.
“I think he came to see it as what it became – some kind of voice for the business community, which he didn’t think was being served anywhere else,” Wellborn said.
The MBJ began publishing a year before CNN was launched as the first all-news television channel in the U.S., a successful venture that eventually spawned business news channels. And it arrived two years before the two terms of President Ronald Reagan brought a renewed focus on the economy and business issues.
“Thanks to Barney in large part, a foundation was laid for business journalism in Memphis, and that foundation has led to a thriving segment of the local media market,” said James Overstreet, associate publisher and executive editor of The Daily News and The Memphis News.
Overstreet, who worked for DuBois at the MBJ for a short time before the newspaper was sold to Charlotte-based ACBJ, said DuBois’ legacy in Memphis business journalism cannot be overstated.
“Barney’s passion for business journalism was infectious, and it’s a passion I have tried to remain true to throughout my career,” he said. “The market for business news in Memphis is exceptional, and The Daily News and The Memphis News are striving to carry on the tradition Barney started.”
DuBois’ passion included the intersection of politics and business, which is why he established a Nashville bureau that on a weekly basis provided the status of every business-related bill pending or acted on by the Tennessee Legislature.
“He was convinced that Memphis business people didn’t know what was going on – and also Nashville didn’t care that much about Memphis,” Wellborn said. “It was several pages a week that was sent by the slowest modem known to mankind. … It was a dog of a job to get it in. But for years we did it.”
Based on the operation the MBJ built in Nashville, the company launched the Nashville Business Journal in 1985. DuBois was publisher and CEO of both until 1997, when he sold both to ACBJ, a division of Advance Publishing, which is owned by the Newhouse family.
After selling the company, DuBois retired for a short time before returning to the Memphis business community in 2005 as CEO in residence of the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. Most recently he worked as a public relations consultant and media strategist.
He leaves two daughters, Gabrielle DuBois Libby and Leeza DuBois Hollingsworth; a son, Lawrence Michael DuBois; a brother, Michael DuBois; and two grandchildren.
Staff reporter Sarah Baker contributed to this report.