YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As Ralph Zerbonia looks at The Business Journal, he sees a publication that looks “substantially similar” to the newspaper he launched in 1984.
As an entrepreneur, Zerbonia has participated in startups ranging from online commerce when “online” was a term barely in the public lexicon to the development of the aquaponics curriculum at Choffin Career & Technical Center.
His first venture, and longest lasting, is what became the Youngstown Business Journal.
“I’m very happy with what we set out to do because it obviously was a good model,” he says.
“More to the point, the ideals remain. The paper has never betrayed the community – never, and it has always been the wind underneath its wings,” he observes. “This is the primary supporter of the new Youngstown, I’m convinced. It was the attitude we took that is very similar to what you now see in organization after organization. They’re proud of this community.”
Zerbonia will be recognized Wednesday for his role as the first publisher of The Business Journal, as well as other ventures, during his induction into the inaugural class of the Youngstown Press Club Hall of Fame. Veteran news anchors Stan Boney from WKBN (and previously WYTV) and the late Bob Black from WFMJ also will be inducted along with the Vindicator Printing Co.
In the early 1980s, Zerbonia was employed as a stockbroker. During visits to Pittsburgh with his wife, Bonnie, he came across publications that focused on the local business community. He also was familiar with Crain’s Cleveland Business.
At the time, The Vindicator had a single business page and a Sunday section that was mostly expanded stock market listings and some national news. The newspaper “did very little local business reporting,” he says.
In 1983, Zerbonia decided to move forward with plans to launch a business newspaper. His inspiration that such a publication would succeed in Youngstown — which was still reeling from the contraction of the steel industry– likely struck many as odd, if not fantastic.
“Jobs is one factor of an economy,” he explains. As a Series 7, federally licensed stockbroker, he knew the community was “rich as hell. There was money everywhere. You couldn’t believe the amount of money that was here.”
Having made the decision to start the publication, he needed someone with a journalism background. He approached Andrea Wood, at the time anchor of the weeknight news broadcasts on WYTV Channel 33. Years before, Zerbonia and Wood became friends after she interviewed him for a story.
Zerbonia occasionally visited Wood at WYTV and began telling her his plans. Having watched her edit stories during his visits, he suggested she become editor-in-chief.
“It was a really good idea and a challenge. I didn’t want to be on television the rest of my life,” Wood says.
So she joined the venture and became its third investor.
Zerbonia and Wood came to a couple realizations. One was that they weren’t going to have enough personnel to cover every aspect of local business.
“So we chose not to make it like The Wall Street Journal but more like Parade Magazine,” Zerbonia says. “We ran features that were business-related but were not hard business news.”
From the start, the goal was to promote the local business community.
“We immediately agreed [the paper’s viewpoint] had to be positive,” Wood says. “It had to change the narrative – no more ‘death of steel.’ We had to talk about people who were here who were dedicated to rebuilding the economy.”
The first edition of the Youngstown Business Journal carried an August 1984 publication date. Wood continued anchoring the news, running the then-monthly newspaper’s editorial operation during her time off and writing stories under a pseudonym. Zerbonia ran the business side, sold ads and wrote editorials.
The presence of a media vehicle that highlighted local businesses and positive developments in the community was “a breath of fresh air,” remembers Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator. Ewing was working at the Better Business Bureau when the paper launched.
“If you go back to those times, it seemed like business was utterly collapsing. So having a venue that was speaking to the fact that good things were happening, that so many businesses were still standing, helped to lift some of the clouds,” Ewing says.
“I can’t imagine what this community would be like today without a way to reach our business community through The Business Journal,” she says. “In hindsight, we are now starting to understand the full range of its value given how much that industry has changed.”
Page production took place on Ralph and Bonnie’s dining room table with Wood often going home and using her kitchen table before the company secured the first of four offices it would occupy.
Zerbonia recalls the “mad rush” to get content. Type would be pasted up by them during long Saturdays at the former Niles Daily Times, with Wood often writing final items at the printing plant.
Wood and Zerbonia acknowledge the startup was severely undercapitalized.
“I was an enterprising young man and willing to take on the risk,” Zerbonia says. He was able to convince the printer and other vendors to extend credit.
When Wood’s contract with WYTV was up for renewal in 1985, she requested a six-month leave of absence to see if the publication could become a going concern. She was told that she would need to resign.
In May 1985, she did. “I took a leap of faith,” she says.
Zerbonia, who was still a full-time stockbroker came to the point in 1987 where he decided to sell his shares back to the company, quite aware that Wood was now doing the day-to-day work of putting out a publication.
Years later, she and Zerbonia would continue their friendship. “I still confide in Ralph and ask him for business advice. I very much value what he has to say,” Wood says.
Zerbonia moved on to other publishing ventures, including becoming editor of the online publication, Money With Your Modem, and associate editor of Sysop – for system operator – News.
His interest in the emerging computer field – he built his first computer in 1984, and by 1986 he owned an Apple II – led him to look into creating the next America Online. In 1994, he wrote a white paper, “Community Based Online Service Systems,” that “lays out a business plan for an online system to deliver news and information to consumers on their home computers or devices,” he says.
Zerbonia used his “newfound credentials” to attempt to raise funds for what he refers to as “CBOSS.”
After a year of persistent phone calls to set up a meeting with Mark Brown, general manager of The Vindicator, he finally succeeded.
He presented the white paper to Brown and his mother, Betty Brown Jagnow, publisher, and warned them that the internet “is going to eat your cake if you don’t do something about it.”
They agreed to provide the startup funds.
Zerbonia used the investment to buy, Neonet, a company damaged by an employee who had embezzled funds.
“We immediately had all of the infrastructure to provide internet access to anybody who wanted to pay us,” he says. CBOSS launched in October 1995. Zerbonia was its chief operating officer until 2006.
Ewing credits Zerbonia for bringing “the idea of CBOSS to the table so early in the deployment” of that technology.
“It also once again put us ahead of the curve of communities our size. He has great vision for the future trends and how to optimize them early on,” she says.
“Ralph is a visionary,” she says. “He’s always had great ideas. He’s always looked way forward to the future. He sees things that other people don’t see.”
Today Zerbonia is president of Universe Central Corp., based at YBI. Through the years, he has been involved with various other startups.
“I’ve had a very interesting time of it,” he reflects. “Maybe even better, I’ve had the ability to stand on the shoulders of both giants in life and giants in employees – all hugely talented people, more so than me.’
As various awards and accolades have come to her and to The Business Journal through the years, Wood always acknowledges Zerbonia’s role.
“Ralph gave me my publishing career and gave the community The Business Journal,” she says. “I’m grateful that he’s being recognized for his vision.”
Nearly four decades after The Business Journal’s inception, Zerbonia also is gratified.
“It’s grown in all the ways I had hoped, and it’s shone in several ways I hadn’t even imagined,” he says.
Pictured at top: Ralph Zerbonia, first publisher of The Business Journal, shows a copy of the August 1985 publication, which marked its first anniversary.