Lunch with Mimi: Town&Gown publisher Bernard A. Oravec discusses the role of the magazine – and community journalism – in a changing media world
Bernard A. Oravec has been publisher of Barash Media, including Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette, since late December 2018. He brought more than 27 years of newspaper experience to Barash, including the previous 10 years with Ogden Newspapers as publisher of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.
A Johnstown native, Oravec was the first member of his family to attend college, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech communications from Penn State. Oravec and his wife, Diane, have been residents of State College since 2004, when he accepted a position with The Centre Daily Times.
A longtime drummer and percussionist, Oravec still actively plays in local bands and enjoys restoring vintage drum kits. He serves on the College Township Planning Commission and is a member of The State Theatre, Centre County PAWS, Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society, and the Penn State Alumni Association.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Oravec to thank readers and advertisers for their continued support and to discuss the role of local print publications in a changing media environment.
Mimi: I’m happy to interview you at my new home at the Village at Penn State. December is your one-year anniversary of being at the top of the organization. I appreciate the quality that you've been able to maintain and the experience and energy you bring to the company. I thought it would be interesting for you to give us a few words of the possible differences between being the boss of a magazine with a special mission, a different mission than perhaps anything anyone's ever seen in this marketplace. And many tell us they've never seen anything like it anyplace else. What's it like to transfer from the world of daily newspaper and come to the world of a magazine?
Bernie: The big difference is the fact that we are not operating under a daily deadline. In many cases, with a daily newspaper or even a weekly newspaper, you're really only looking at 24 hours from preparation to publication. With a magazine, you have more time, you can go a little more in depth, especially on the lifestyle stories, to discover more about the history and personalities of events and individuals. So, it's often a much larger and more encompassing story that you'll see in a magazine, as opposed to presenting a tight news story for next-day publication.
Mimi: What's the biggest problem you've run into in the magazine world?
Bernie: Our challenge is to continue to grow Town&Gown through high-quality local storytelling and solid locally-generated advertising support. We must never forget how important this magazine is to our readers, advertisers, and community. We must continue to deliver compelling content that our readers and advertisers want to see. At Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette, we have an extremely dedicated and very talented staff, who takes great pride in every issue. I am very honored to lead this team. I can assure you, as publisher, that we will always create a high-quality magazine and newspaper.
Mimi: How long do you think that story will last in this changing world?
Bernie: Community magazines and newspapers driven by hyper-local content will always have a home in this changing world. In fact, more people are reading specialty magazines today than ever before. Obviously, the big national news magazines and newspapers have struggled.
Much of this was self-inflicted injury, due to non-stop promotion of a national political agenda. Some of it is due to changes in the way people receive their news and the print media’s error in not placing pay walls on all content from the beginning. But a free local magazine, like Town&Gown, that provides honest, compelling, and community-driven content will remain relevant.
Mimi: We were talking about the difference between newspapers and magazines. I'd like to talk a little bit more about the decline of national magazines, especially in the very competitive media markets, particularly in smaller towns. At what point will this impact our area? Today we have numerous TV and radio stations. I don't know how they all survive in this limited market. As you look to the future, what do you see, as someone managing one of those pieces in a complex, extremely competitive media market?
Bernie: I believe it all comes down to content. We must maintain useful and compelling local content. Local magazines and newspapers will live or die by how they approach local news, local sports, and the community. Coverage of local municipal and school board meetings, local nonprofits, benefit dinners, and our schools are paramount to our success. If we continue to uphold our commitment to our community, there's going to be a place for local print for a long time to come.
I think where you see the big divide is on a national level. The national news sources are no longer relevant to the local community. If you want to learn about what's going on in China, Mexico, or the Middle East, you can find it online or on a 24-hour television news channel. Whereas when it comes to your local community, you're most reliable sources of local information are still your print sources. And if you really look at the combined readership between print and online, there's more people reading local newspapers and magazine stories than ever before. Since we've expanded out into the online, digital, and mobile market, we have increased our reach. With more readers searching for local content, it is vital, now more than ever, for us to provide it. It really does make a difference to us to keep the content very local.
Mimi; God bless us, right?
Bernie: We hear so much about certain towns losing their daily newspapers and not having a local source of information anymore. I don't see that happening so much in Pennsylvania as in other places. In fact, a lot of the larger national newspaper chains right now are actually in a buying mode. They're purchasing many small-market newspapers, especially in the college markets, because they believe that they can run them more profitably by downsizing personnel and using shared design, printing, and creative distribution centers. All content will still be generated locally by hometown beat reporters, but much of the layout and aesthetic design will be completed offsite. So, I think shared production services is the future for daily newspapers.
Mimi: What is the impact of the internet especially on products, businesses, and people? There doesn’t seem to be much accountability. What about the bad side of when something goes viral? Are print products, like us, more cautious about what we do?
Bernie: Yes, absolutely. I think print products, like Town&Gown, The Centre County Gazette, or any other legacy publications you might know of, all have real people with names and faces behind their products. So, we're totally accountable. Legally, we're accountable. They'll come after us as a company and they'll come after us individually if we do something that's over the line. Whereas when you have private blogs or social media-based information, there's little to no accountability. That’s often why you’ll see outrageous reporting, unsubstantiated claims, and vicious criticisms go unchecked online.
Mimi: On the other hand, does the internet encourage free speech?
Bernie: Yes, I think it does encourage free speech, creativity, and expression – and that’s a good thing. However, the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, was adopted to primarily protect political speech from government persecution. If it’s not political speech, there should be accountability. You can say whatever you wish, about anything you wish, but there could be consequences for your actions. That is why laws for libel, slander, and defamation exist.
I think what we have right now on most online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and a lot of blogs, is basically a model where whoever yells the loudest or writes the most outrageously, controls the dialogue. Whereas with traditional media, you're still able to read much more unbiased news and reporting, especially on the local level. That might not be the case on the national level. But on a local level, it's still pretty fair.
Speaking of free speech, more emphasis should be placed to returning free political speech to college campuses. By that I mean all voices and ideologies must be able to freely express themselves. Our universities have had a long history of cultivating an environment of free expression of ideas. Ideas from all sides! However, today, that freedom seems to only extend to one side of the political spectrum. This is very troubling. Open discussion and debate must be encouraged for all students and faculty on campus.
Mimi; Well, I would agree with you that on a local level, we are extremely careful about hurting anyone.
Bernie: Especially in our business, with magazines like Town&Gown that are so committed to quality lifestyle content. Our mission with the magazine is to point out how wonderful it is to live in this area by highlighting the positive attributes about our community. And every now and then, by tackling important issues that might be controversial. But by and large, the magazine that we produce is designed to have a positive impact on the community.
Mimi: Tell me a little about your background.
Bernie: My family came to America in the early 20th Century as immigrants from Eastern Europe. All my grandparents were from what in now Slovakia. I grew up in Johnstown. Most of the men in my family, including my father, were steelworkers and one grandfather worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. My mother was a full-time homemaker. As a boy, I can remember my grandparents speaking broken English, a mix of Slovak and English. My parents would sometimes have to translate our conversations.
They always talked about the grandchildren forging a better life than they had. This stuck with me. I attended public school and grew up in an immigrant neighborhood. I was always around steelworkers, coal miners, and railroad men. This taught me to be tough, how to curse in different languages, and always stand up for myself. It was during this time that I learned the power of free speech and the importance of education from my grandparents. I was the first member of my family to attend college. It is for these reasons that I have become an outspoken advocate for your First Amendment rights.
Mimi: Free speech and publishing go hand-in-hand. I think one of the things that I did when I was the boss was to emphasize quality. And one of the things that makes me feel very good is that the people who have followed me have done the same thing. We're the best publication in town. I tell everybody, because I believe that.
Bernie: When I moved back to State College in 2004, I had an opportunity to see Town&Gown on a monthly basis. And it was always a good read. I think we're trying to make it better. We're trying to be more engaging and more interesting to the casual reader. And I think the goal is to continue along that path. We have a great story to tell in Centre County with Penn State, State College, and the whole region. And, we're one of the best vehicles to tell that story and to promote our region. This is a wonderful place to live and work.
Mimi: It's a perfect tie in to the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau changing their name to the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. I read it in The Centre County Gazette. It's an exciting idea. They have gone away from tradition and this is a place of adventure. That's the key word in their new branding.
Bernie: And you certainly want to open the area up to everybody and if this helps bring more people to the region, all the better.
Mimi: We are on a roll, even though we have tremendous competition. Look at Bellefonte; it's growing up and getting very proud of itself becoming the county center that it should be. Other places are doing more things like this. I read about the possibility that the first block of Allen Street in State College will become a pedestrian place during the summer. That's an interesting compromise, really, and it takes a lot of pieces with people pulling together, not just the media and tourist agency, or the county commissioners. It's an example of the vitality of this community when we let go and walk away from old traditions.
Bernie: Yes, there are a lot of nice changes coming to Centre County. Bellefonte is a great example. Bellefonte to me is the next boom area in our market, after State College. I think there's a lot of potential there and not only for business and industry, but also for housing, whether it be single residential, multi-unit, or, eventually, more student housing. That’s the next direction of growth that you're going to see in the county.
Mimi: I keep telling people that if I were young, I’d buy land in Bellefonte.
Bernie: There are some other great areas. Just look at Boalsburg and Philipsburg. There are some beautiful homes still reasonably priced in those markets and there is still land available. I believe Centre County, as a whole, is in much better conditioned economically and more forward-thinking than most counties in Pennsylvania. We have a lot of good things to look forward to in our area, not just with growth at Penn State and downtown State College, but throughout the entire county.
Mimi: The huge challenge for downtown however, is to attract new, exciting retail, the spaces that still remain the character of the downtown community. And to me, the biggest challenge is, how do you avoid getting another Amazon pickup store in downtown State College because part of its personality is all the specialty shops? I'm impressed that a young woman not only bought the Animal Kingdom, but she also bought the toy store. And she's improved both of them. I hope she thrives in both unbelievably. I shopped there the other day and I met her for the first time. We need more young people with exciting futures to take over some of these locations, and there are many available with interesting places to shop, like we used to have.
Bernie: What we can do is continue our mission of promoting these young entrepreneurs, promoting what's available in town, and the wonderful aspects of the community to help people realize what a special place it is. Downtown State College is a destination.
Mimi: It is a place where you really can go from rags to riches. Many of the successful merchants and business owners were ordinary people who had a good idea.
Bernie: And I think that's the key to it. I mean, it all starts with an idea and the willingness to work hard to make that idea a reality. It doesn't matter what your level of education is at that point. It's what your level of commitment and organization is to get it done. So, I think there's a lot of great opportunities downtown. And downtown does have to evolve. And it is, with the changing retail environment.
It is no surprise that a lot of merchandise now is bought online through Amazon and other online sites. But that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be an opportunity for people to visit vibrant brick-and-mortar retail locations. In this town, if you build it, they will come. If you offer great products and solid customer service, they will come back. I do believe that.
Mimi: I understand you’re a musician.
Bernie: Yes, I've been playing drums since I was 10 years old. From high school and college, and shortly thereafter, I played regularly with a variety of different cover bands. As I moved up in media management, I had to give up playing regularly. I now play occasionally or as needed. I will help out if a band needs a drummer on short notice or if an orchestra or brass band needs a percussionist or tympani player.
It's a great hobby, it is so much easier for me to play now, because there's so many opportunities and venues in town. I enjoy playing the older vintage drums from the 1930s through 1970s. I also do restoration work on old drums, to bring them back to life, because the older wooden drums to me always sound the best. They have a great, warm feel to them. No matter the age or value, all musical instruments, especially drums, are meant to be played.
Mimi: I understand you recently had statewide success in changing legislation.
Bernie: For the past few years I have been lobbying for greater government transparency in the way vacancies in elected political offices are filled through the courts. In many counties, names of candidates for appointment to fill political vacancies were not made public by the courts. The Supreme Court agreed with my argument that they should be made public and just changed the law in November to reflect this.
Mimi: Bernie, I've enjoyed sitting down with you for these moments of sharing thoughts, if you will. And what are your closing thoughts on the future of our magazine and our town?
Bernie: I believe the future of Town&Gown is very strong. The local community looks to us to take the lead in covering what's good, interesting, and important in our community. At 20,000 monthly editions, we have the largest circulation and the most readers of any magazine in Centre County. We have solid, loyal advertiser support. We continue to partner with numerous local nonprofits to support fundraising and promote awareness. I believe that Town&Gown has a very solid and unique partnership with State College and Penn State University. I expect to see it only get better in the years to come. I believe we are doing things the right way.
Mimi: Thanks for all you're doing to continue a community tradition.
Bernie: You are welcome. I love what I do. I appreciate this opportunity to share with our readers. Thank you.