One of Brad Bollinger’s biggest pleasures is to go out to lunch or meet with businesspeople and hear what’s going on in their company and their industry. He comes away with a new understanding of the issues that these individuals face, and the implications for the rest of the economic ecosystem.
It is the kind of engagement Bollinger will miss most when he retires as North Bay Business Journal publisher at the end of December.
Coming from The Press Democrat in 2005, his approach to taking over as Business Journal editor was “don’t fix what isn’t broken.” He credits Business Journal founders Ken Clark and Randy Sloan with “building a great publication. My role at the time was to elevate the editorial product.”
With the two newspapers under ownership of The New York Times Company at the time, Bollinger transitioned from editor to associate publisher in 2007, and then to publisher five years later.
“Under Brad’s leadership, the North Bay Business Journal has become the go-to source for thousands of North Bay executives for relevant and timely business news and information,” says Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, a group of local businesspeople who acquired The Press Democrat, Business Journal and other publications from the Times in 2012. “Brad has also grown NBBJ events every year — currently they number more than two dozen — as a place for business leaders to convene for important discussions and to recognize and celebrate business success.”
Bollinger responds that Falk has been a great supporter.
“There aren’t many media companies in the United States that have a business journal as part of their portfolio. As a locally owned company, we have managed to completely outperform the industry in many, many measures, and not just in profitability,” Bollinger says. “Our newsroom has been kept intact, and we have been allowed to do what we are supposed to do, which is keep the community informed. When there is a problem, an issue, a fire, an earthquake, whatever it is, the radio stations and the newspapers are the source and the glue that holds the community together.”
Local, local, local might be Bollinger’s mantra.
“I can get a story about Hurricane Sally somewhere, but I can’t get my local news anywhere else except from North Bay journalists,” he says. “Many communities have lost their hometown newspapers and have become news deserts, as they are called. We’ve been fortunate here.”
Asked if there had been a “golden age” for newspapers in Sonoma County, Bollinger replies, “Right now!” He cites the Pulitzer Prize that The Press Democrat newsroom won in 2018 for coverage of the 2017 North Bay wildfires.
Bollinger believes the area has been lucky all along with the ownership of its publications, noting especially the period after The New York Times purchased The Press Democrat in 1985.
“The Times invested a lot of money that we are benefitting from to this day,” he says, “including their journalism fund, which supported the ‘Global Shift’ series I worked on.” Bollinger was lead editor and creator of the four-day investigation on the local impacts of economic globalization, which ran in September 2004.
The NYT journalism fund was then and is now a philanthropic arm of the organization that searches for nonprofit funding to expand the reach of their journalism. “Global Shift” won the prestigious Polk Award, as well as The New York Times companywide Punch Award. “That probably would never have happened without the Times as an owner,” Bollinger says.
He considers the late Mike Parman (who was Press Democrat editor at the time of the Times Company purchase) one of his mentors and the person who had the biggest influence on his career. “Basically, Mike gave me opportunities that may have passed me by. And when the Business Journal editorship came up, he helped me transition over. Mike had an enormous personal and professional impact.”
Personal newspaper legacy
Bollinger was born in Santa Rosa on Sept. 5, 1952, and lived there as a child until his family moved to Baker, Oregon, where his father was editor and publisher of a 5,000-circulation daily newspaper.
The family returned to Santa Rosa when Bollinger was a teen. After high school, he considered the medical field (“I don’t know why, I wasn’t that good in science classes.”) but while attending Santa Rosa Junior College, he went to work at the Oak Leaf. “I was about 18 when I took news writing as an elective and my interest continued on from there.”
His first job after graduating from San Jose State in 1974 was at a semiweekly in Crescent City, the Del Norte Triplicate. He then took a position at the Chico Enterprise Record, a daily newspaper.
“Thus my editorial trajectory began with a desire for a little more cash,” he says.
While he labored by day as a reporter and fledgling editor, Bollinger taught a night class in public relations at Chico State. Finding adjunct teaching a pleasure, he subsequently became a full-time faculty lecturer and concurrently finished his master’s degree in communications.
But after three years in the academic setting, the lure of journalism became too attractive and in March 1984, Bollinger found himself back at his hometown paper.
He tells two stories from his early years at The Press Democrat. During his college internship, he was sent to review a play; instead of using the real names of the actors in each role, he used the names of their characters. “Obviously, my opinion of whether the play was good or bad was of no value after that.”
The second incident is from the era when the late Art Volkerts was editor (Volkerts retired in 1986).
The Bollinger family has been connected to The Press Democrat for three generations.
Lee Bollinger was the classified ad manager when his son was an intern. (“Those were the days before Craig’s List,” Bollinger notes.) Many years before, Lee had worked as a flyboy — the apprentice who caught stacks of newspapers as they “flew” off the presses. Brad’s grandmother was in charge of “the morgue,” where newspaper clippings were stored. In addition, three of Brad’s siblings worked at the PD at various times.
“Dad retired from the PD around 1990; he’s 95 now and still strong. My son, Jacob, lives in Orinda and works in the tech field,” he says. “So you might say my retirement is the end of our newspaper legacy.”
Catherine Barnett, The Press Democrat’s executive editor, makes the same observation about the culmination of the Bollinger family PD legacy.
“I remember Lee Bollinger, who was a consummate gentleman, taking time to talk in-depth to a lowly intern the first summer I worked here during college more than 40 years ago,” she says. “Brad is a lot like his father — he values civility and is courteous and thoughtful.”
A business-to-business essential
Bollnger explains that the Business Journal fills a niche that the regular consumer daily paper does not.
It starts with providing a news operation, and then builds into business-to-business connections facilitated by a variety of public events.
“This community has done well because the people like living here, and they want to hear about what’s going on, and to contribute. After a tragedy like the fires, they want to bring leaders together and examine what they are doing, what they promised to do,” Bollinger says. “By growing as both a B-to-B publication and an event business, the Business Journal has a greater penetration into the market and provides a greater service.”
The focus of an event might be making contacts, presenting awards, or exploring in-depth an issue in a particular county — for example, the Impact Napa series titled “Connecting with Consumers in the Age of Covid.” A conference might also focus on a particular industry, like wine or construction.
The Business Journal also produces about a dozen awards and recognition programs, including Best Places to Work, Latino Business Leadership and Women in Business Awards.
Bollinger is typically the emcee at NBBJ events and is responsible for driving event content and moderating panels. For him, it’s all about fulfilling the mission to bring people together and hone in on what is happening in the community at the current moment.
Bollinger jokes that people are probably tired of seeing him behind the podium, although he seems to be a natural at hosting. Blair Kellison of Traditional Medicinals, who refers to Bollinger as “the real deal,” says this: “I will never walk into the lobby of the Santa Rosa Hyatt and not think of Brad in one of the conference rooms with a microphone in his hand.”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a shutdown of large, in-person gatherings, the Business Journal staff shifted to orchestrating virtual events. By the beginning of October, they had produced 10 on Zoom. Bollinger notes that two recent online events had over 800 and 600 attendees each.
“Guest speakers can appear from all over, saving the expense of flights and accommodations,” he says. “The current circumstances have actually extended our reach, rather than narrowed it.”
Along with an expanded schedule of events and its weekly business reporting, the Business Journal has since 1990 published an annual Book of Lists, a reference guide containing information about North Bay businesses in about 80 categories.
“Everybody thought it would go away, but you lend your Book of Lists to somebody and you never get it back!” Bollinger says of the annual publications, which is based on the same model as other national business journals.
Response to calamity
Fires, pandemic, store closures, unemployment, and fires again — Bollinger wonders how much more California can take.
For him, the response of business leaders after the 2017 Tubbs fire was “nothing short of miraculous.”
The global companies located in the county — he used Keysight Technologies as an example — contacted every employee to find out was what going on and continued to pay people.
“Workplaces became the default home for many. The CEO of a FEMA contractor told me she had never seen a community respond like Sonoma County did to the fires,” Bollinger says. “And that includes the amount of philanthropy that went on at that time, and still goes on.”
During COVID-19, business leaders have responded in the same compassionate way. Those companies with employees who are able to work remotely have facilitated that.
“However,” Bollinger admits, “if you’re in hospitality or tourism, the pandemic shutdown has been very difficult. I think on the whole, companies here have responded by taking care of people. Those most impacted have been in lower wage industries — and I’ve said this publicly — we have to make sure that they are supported. A lot of the big restaurant names have developed funds to help their people.”
Calling himself “a very positive person,” he continues to draw attention to the community-oriented perspective of local employers in the face of the recent string of calamities.
Time for a new chapter
The Spanish word for retirement is “jubilación.” Bollinger likes to refer to his “next chapter.” He and his wife, Corine, had come to this major decision a couple of years ago and have been planning for it.
“After over 44 years as a journalist, editor and publisher, I’m ready to let someone else come in to do what they can to help the Business Journal grow. It’s time for me to try something new,” he says.
That “something new” is embarking on studies for a master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver. Starting Jan. 11, Bollinger will be a remote student.
“I’ve been looking at this for a long time, wanting to explore something significant and different,” Bollinger says. “There are a lot of writers and critics who have studied theology in their later years, like C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterson. Not that I’m on their level, but in taking this direction, I’m in good company.”
Bollinger plans to start slowly with one or two classes, and then ramp up with enough units to be finished in spring 2023. “Assuming I don’t flunk out,” he says, “it will be an adventure and a journey, but still a little scary, to be quite honest. I haven’t taken a test in 40 years!”
Bollinger feels blessed and grateful to have been a member of the journalism community for so long. In looking back, he has few regrets. “I’ve probably made a lot of dumb mistakes,” Bollinger pauses, “but nothing that was of serious injury.”
“Folks have been saying to me, ‘Don’t disappear.’ All I can answer is: everything is just opening up. There are some endings and there are some beginnings.”