John J. Palumbo – Lifetime Achievement Award – 2024

John J. Palumbo

Rhode Island Monthly Magazine

While John appears to be a red-blooded American publisher, we suspect coffee milk (Rhode Island’s official state  drink) runs in his veins. Born, raised and educated in the state, John embodies the quirky zeitgeist of the entire state, from oceanfront Newport to artsy Providence.  From quahogs to chowdah, his unabashed love of all things Rhode Island – along with a healthy dose of tenacity and intestinal fortitude – are what have put Rhode Island Monthly on the map.

John’s career spans advertising, retail marketing and promotion, but the symbiotic relationship between man and magazine began when John leaped into media in 1986 as Promotions Manager for the Providence Journal Company. As newspaper consolidations accelerated in the early 1990s, he left for a senior position at CVS Health. But in 1997 his mentor at the Journal lured him back to be Rhode Island Monthly’s publisher and general manager. New to the regional magazine business, he dove in and took the helm of an 18-employee fixer-upper of a magazine in tenuous financial shape but with a loyal following.

“It was the most challenging Rubik’s Cube I ever attempted,” John says. “The org chart, the technology, the financial stability of the business were frightening. My goal was to keep the business alive and functioning close to expectations. There was a lot of ‘oh my God, what have I gotten myself into’ as I learned the business.”

At the same time, national media company A.H. Belo Corporation was purchasing the Journal, so it was difficult for Palumbo to get attention from the parent company. Undaunted, he relied on other resources, including the CRMA, and worked tirelessly to grow the staff and subscriber base, commit to quality journalism, and promote the magazine.

While it’s fair to say the magazine has in part molded John, it’s also fair to say there would be no Rhode Island Monthly without John. In 2008 as the mortgage crisis deepened and parent company Belo broke into two companies, the magazine reached its second critical inflection point. It was clear to John that Belo’s financial expectations were untenable, the magazine and 26 jobs were at risk.

“It was all about shareholder value,” John recalls. “Belo’s expectations would have meant layoffs, which would have meant fewer publications, which would lead to lower revenue, which would mean Belo would ask for more layoffs – it becomes a death spiral.”

John warned Belo a shutdown would mean expensive severance pay, subscriber liability, and a huge PR problem. He convinced them to let him look for someone to buy the magazine and allow him to run it. As he worked with a team of advisors and investors to make the numbers work, finally one of the mergers and acquisition people said, “Why don’t you buy it? Make an offer.”

“To make this leap required raiding my 401(k), borrowing from friends and family, refinancing my home, and taking out a 10-year SBA-guaranteed loan. It was the boldest and scariest thing I have ever done, and not for the faint of heart.”

His Journal mentor Howard G. Sutton, now Publisher Emeritus, served as aide-de-camp and sounding board through it all. “John persevered through the torturous labyrinth of negotiations involved in buying an individual property from a huge, publicly traded media corporation. It was like David dealing with Goliath considering the obstacles he had to overcome. Yet, he soldiered on through the whole process, because he knew he could continue the magazine successfully as a standalone entrepreneurial business.”

John closed the deal and made the deadline to exit the Journal’s ownership, retaining all employees and the health care plan. Adrenaline fueled the next three months and there was not a single day he wasn’t working in the magazine’s new space to make the transition successful. Every day he’d run to meet the mail delivery, looking for checks to see if he could make payroll. On Sundays he was there vacuuming and cleaning.

The hard work and perseverance paid off as the magazine began to grow. John’s commitment to journalistic integrity is evident in the depth of the investigative stories his team takes on. They were first to break the news when long-time Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy decided to leave politics, working cloak and dagger for a month until the story finally published.

One eagerly anticipated annual feature is their “Best of” issue and perpetually sold-out celebration that has become one of the must-go events of the year – this is their 31st. Celebrating the state is an elixir to John and the team, and their efforts to promote the state are no small factor in the state’s tourism world.

John also led the development of a robust portfolio of brand extensions with sister publications Home Design, Nest and Engaged, as well as contract publications in partnership with businesses. He has been strategic and smart about diversifying into these niche markets while also lending a deft hand in a successful digital strategy.

The magazine is consistently recognized for excellence, winning scores of awards over the years from the CRMA and the RI Press Association for investigative journalism, financial reporting, and more. Last year they earned 27 awards across 21 different categories, including nine first-place titles, from the Rhode Island Press Association.  And in 2022, John was inducted into the RI Press Association Hall of Fame.

When asked what accomplishment he is most proud of, John says survival through daunting times. Truly, part of any regional magazine’s success is having a keen eye on the financials, and John’s LinkedIn profile lists him as the chief dime counter. That vigilance is what saw the magazine through a third pivotal point in its existence, the COVID pandemic.

In 2019, their Providence-based lease was up and they found affordable space in Pawtucket in an old mill, taking on debt and an eight-month buildout process to facilitate the move. The team moved in on March 13, 2020, just as businesses and restaurants shut down and everyone’s future looked uncertain.

“Here I am running a lifestyle magazine trying to reassure 40-50 restaurant advertisers who have a significant investment in us, paper and postal costs were going up, and no one knew what was coming next,” John says. “To survive in this business, you just have to keep your head down and keep moving forward. You can’t be consumed with trepidation or you will be paralyzed.”

Rhode Island Monthly is now the largest locally-owned statewide media company, with a subscriber renewal rate of greater than 80% and a loyal online following with approximately 260,000 monthly page views.

The magazine’s role as a locally-owned, responsive statewide media company loyal to advertisers and subscribers alike is what’s most important to John. “We’re close to being an endangered species – most other Rhode Island news outlets are owned by big out-of-state companies. Being independent and local lets us be driven by journalistic value, not shareholder value. We can be nimble to react to market conditions. We can go left when others go right, re-allocate resources or find new ones. I trust my team’s opinions and consider them allies.”

As more and more outlets for long-form journalism disappear, Rhode Island Monthly continues to stand alone, digging deep into investigative stories and filling an essential role for those who want to read, learn and understand.

Through his 27-year stretch at Rhode Island Monthly, John has loved being a part of the CRMA since his first conference in New Orleans, and he has appreciated the invaluable resources and relationships formed there. “It is a generous community of colleagues where you don’t think twice about picking up the phone and asking for advice. Conferences are like a family reunion. It has been a tremendous support.”

A past member of the CRMA board of directors, he has served as past president (and in other elected positions), chaired annual conferences, and is frequently called upon by CRMA to participate in a leadership role.

With his hands full at CRMA and the magazine, John could be forgiven for not stepping up when the community calls. But he loves being a close community resource and he loves helping people. His tireless work ethic is evident in his copious community service, at one time serving on six boards at once, including the Rhode Island Zoological Society (Roger Williams Park Zoo). To honor his outstanding contributions, the zoo named their new veterinary hospital after him. He was also the founding chairperson of WaterFire Providence, a Providence-based arts installation. He has also been an adjunct faculty member at URI, Rhode Island College and Rhode Island School of Design. In recognition of his many contributions, Rhode Island College awarded him an honorary doctorate for public service.

John has received numerous accolades in his unofficial role as state ambassador. He has earned the Rhode Island Hospitality & Tourism Association Mary Brennan Award (an annual award personifying the spirit of tourism in the state), was a recipient of the Governor’s Award for support of tourism industry, earned the Greater Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau-Ambassador Award, and was the first inductee into the Greater Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau Hall of Fame. In addition, he serves on the board and was past chairman of the Greater Providence/Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau where he has been responsible for achieving accreditation.

He’s proud of his two children and their accomplishments and admits his two dogs Jake and June run his life. For downtime, his backyard and gardens are his passion and escape for too little relaxation time.

“John reminds me of a classic scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Sundance says ‘You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at. And Butch replies, ‘Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals,” Sutton says. “John is distinctive in that there are thinkers and doers, and he is both. He has the vision and he can also do the implementation. That’s a rare combination and that’s what he has shown in his career, especially at Rhode Island Monthly. But his legacy is not only what he’s done in media, it is what he’s accomplished in the community, in the publishing industry, and in the advertising industry. His is a life filled with vision, tenacity, and exceptional achievement.”