February 1993 was not a great time to be starting a newspaper. You could say the same about the 30 years that followed. Yet here we are in 2023 celebrating 360 months of local content in a locally owned newspaper by editors and reporters who actually live here.
What was going on in 1993 in Columbia was intense competition for the eyeballs and money of some of the best-educated, best-paid people in America – meaning of course, the world. Carole Ashbaugh Pickett and husband Ed had grown up in Howard County in the 1950s when it was still a mostly rural backwater with less than 40,000 people.
By the time they returned after media ventures in New England, it was almost five times that size.
From its start, Columbia had always been a competitive media marketplace. But in the early 90s, Columbia was a hotbed of media struggle. The Columbia Flier, a free distribution tabloid that had pioneered that model, had grown into a chain of 13 suburban papers called Patuxent Publishing. The Baltimore Sun and even the Washington Post had outposts here feeding separate editions.
They all had some business coverage, but none had the nitty-gritty detail about the thriving business community in Howard County.
Got a press release on a new startup? The Business Monthly ran it, and maybe hit you up for a small ad. Starting a new bank? Let’s do a feature. And how about an ad contract? Got a chamber event, a ribbon cutting, a new hire? Send us a photo, if we can’t take one ourselves.
Remember the fiber optics boom in the early 2000s? The Business Monthly did a special section on the dozens of companies here – now mostly closed, merged, shrunk and sold.
The Business Monthly was local-local, expanding into the BWI Business District as traffic at the airport grew and into Anne Arundel County. It was not flashy, with a very traditional layout – more like the Wall Street Journal – but lots of stuff, good local stuff.
In 2002, Carole Pickett (now Carole Ross) sold the paper to Becky Mangus and Cathy Yost – local residents who had been working on the paper – and they continued its down-home feel. To save money, the paper’s offices moved from downtown Columbia to Becky’s Ellicott City home. Both Becky and Cathy were heavily involved in local business boards and community groups, and were a constant presence at events large and small. All the writers and editors like me were part-time freelancers; some would come and go, but several of us have been there for years.
Nobody was getting rich. Keeping a print newspaper afloat was a constant struggle in the age of the internet. That communication tool was just coming into its own when the paper was founded but became the dominant medium of the 21st Century.
For dinosaurs like myself, who began writing on a manual typewriter, then an IBM Selectric and then one of the first Macs, the transformation was gradual but phenomenal and life changing.
Business folks loved the Business Monthly. There’s a special pleasure in seeing your name or photo in something you can hold in your hand – not just your phone. But the new medium of the World Wide Web – how quaint that sounds – supplanted all the core advertising categories that had kept newspapers afloat for generations. Classifieds, help wanted, cars, real estate. Only food has stayed in print as a major category.
After 16 years, almost 200 issues, millions of words, thousands of pics, scores of supplements and special sections, Becky and Cathy sold the paper to longtime publisher and advertising executive Dan Medinger in 2018.
Dan totally revamped the product to be bolder and more eye-catching. He also entered it in the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association contests, garnering awards for the staff each year. The Business Monthly was even an MDDC News Organization of the Year in 2021, for winning the most awards in its division. He kept at it for three years, and then sold it 2021 to Jason Whong, a young man with a news background who made his chops in digital.
Long gone were the earlier competitors from the Sun and the Post. The Patuxent Publishing building on Little Patuxent Parkway has been vacant for a decade. The thick tabloids it once produced are now thin ghosts of their former robust, locally-produced coverage.
Now Jason and The Business Monthly is the last man standing. We stand with him.
Len Lazarick has been writing for The Business Monthly since 1998. He has covered politics, government and business in Maryland since 1975. The 12 chapters of his book Columbia at 50: A Memoir of a City ran first as a series in The Business Monthly in 2016 and 2017.