One of the first issues of Delaware Today under Rob Martinelli’s watch as owner was a near disaster. The February 1982 issue had already gone to print. The brilliant and freewheeling editor John Taylor had penned a tongue-in-cheek cover story examining the unique traits of “lower” Delaware. But on the cover was a hillbilly caricature, along with the headline: “Ain’t There Nothing Downstate but Rednecks?”
It caused a firestorm, swarms of angry phone calls and letters. “I get this thing and I’m like, what’s this all about?” Martinelli recalls. “That caused a big stir.”
Over 40 years, Martinelli has steered the company through countless ups and downs, including recessions and a pandemic. This month, the magazine turns 60.
Former staff editor and longtime contributor Matt Amis talks with Martinelli about the magazine’s evolution.
Later in my first year, Charles Parks did a statue of the Madonna for a church in California, but they put it in Rodney Square for a while. We made that the cover. It was unbelievable. People just loved that. It was the only issue that ever totally sold out. We ended up reprinting it because it was in such demand.
We’ve had President Biden on the cover [a few times] throughout the years and in a various number of articles, even if he wasn’t on the cover. It’s interesting to go back and read some of the earlier articles when he was a county councilman. You hear him talk about many of the same themes we hear today. We had one cover story in the 1980s when both he and Pete du Pont were running for president. Anytime we could put a local person on the cover doing great things for the state always made me proud.
I’ve been blessed through the years with having a very talented staff. The demographics haven’t changed that much over the years. Half of our readers are under 50 and half are older than 50. We’ve always had younger readers—those 25-to 45-year-olds who are interested in the state. These articles appeal across the ages to them. Dining out, entertainment-type options, local service and just writing about local people across the ages helps as well.
Digital has become very important for what we do, [as well as] Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and all that. Readers want content the way they want to consume it, when they want to consume it. If you’re not offering it to them, you’re going to lose them. We made a big investment in getting our content out there digitally. I think that’s been great for us to do that. It’s allowed us to reach more people and keep our subscriptions strong. Then the third leg, too, is we’ve really done a lot on the event side. We extended our brand and we reach a little different audience or the same audience, but now they’re in person at an event, whether it’s Best of Delaware or Women in Business or a bridal show or something like that.
I’ve been through a number of different recessions. This one was the worst by far. Things just stopped, even though we were considered an essential business. We never closed. We never missed an issue. We got it out, [though issues] may have been smaller. You can’t give our staff enough credit for getting us through this difficult time.
Of course digital continues to grow. We want to do more events locally, when COVID-19 allows. There’s a lot of growth downstate, and we continue to make nice inroads down there. We want to tap in to that, make sure we’re visible to people there that are moving to Sussex [County]. We’ve always strived to have diversity in the magazine. We want to make sure we’re doing more, maybe get more diverse writers than we have. I think we could do a better job there. Back in the ’90s, James Gilliam from Beneficial Bank called us out, and he was right. He said, “Your magazine is lily white.” I said, “You’re right. Can you help me?” I think that started us on the path, and I think we could do an even better job there.
It’s like rooting for the home team. We’re about celebrating and applauding what’s going on in the state. That’s largely what we do, but once in a while, you’ve got to boo. We do that sometimes when we feel there’s something that needs to be looked at, but we try to do it in a constructive way.
This is a special place, too. I think when you think about the concentration of the legal community here, and about the DuPont company and all the engineers and scientists and things like that, we have a very high concentration of those types of people doing, a lot of times, cutting-edge national, international work. There are a lot of interesting things to write about.
You know what I hear a lot—and I always love it when I hear it—is when you tell them you work for Delaware Today, [and] they say, “Oh, I really look forward to that magazine.” The same thing with some of our events, like Best of Delaware. They say, “Oh, I really look forward to that event.”
That always makes me feel good. Where else are you going to get this local coverage presented in a visually engaging way where you could read about your neighbor or people you know? We’ve touched a lot of people in this state.