Late-Blooming Entrepreneur Beats Community News Jinx in Metro D.C.

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Metro Washington, D.C., on paper, looks like an ideal market for close-to-home news. It has more than 80 well-defined communities whose residents are mostly affluent and 90% of the region’s 5.3 million adults regularly use the Internet. But despite such attractive demographics, metro D.C. has often been inhospitable to community news.

 Gone is Gannett with its zoned print Journals straddling the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs in the last decade of 20th century, and gone, too, is the more recent Washington Post chain of print and digital Gazettes that served 28 communities in suburban Maryland.

But out of this dismal past has emerged a success story of digital community news. It belongs to late-starting publishing entrepreneur Steve Hull, whose Bethesda Beat casts a wide and inclusive net of coverage on what’s happening in very urban and diverse Bethesda and surrounding towns that are all part of the more settled part of Montgomery County of suburban Maryland north of D.C.

Hull was nearly 50 when he left Atlantic Media in 2003 and founded his first local publishing venture — the monthly Bethesda Magazine, whose glossy print and digital pages speak to an unincorporated former suburban bedroom that now shows off a mixed-use downtown with a busy subway stop, highly regarded restaurants with a variety of American and foreign cuisines and a popular movie house whose offerings include foreign films and restored classics.

In this Q & A, Hull talks about why he wasn’t content to coast after the early success of his Bethesda Magazine and decided to see if he could make it in the faster-paced – and riskier – space of digital community news:

What led you to [found the site]?
The Washington Post had cut back on local coverage and its weekly Gazettes were struggling. We saw an opportunity to fill a news void and to deliver a different kind of advertising for local businesses. Bethesda Magazine, our bi-monthly lifestyle magazine, carries a lot of branding advertising. With Bethesda Beat, we’re able to offer direct-response advertising. That way we can be a one-stop solution for local advertisers.

Do you have any verifiable evidence that your model for community news is getting information to residents that they want and need to know?
The best evidence is that our audience is large and is growing. And that we get a lot of engagement on the site and on social media. We have become the major source of news in a county of 1 million people.

Have you done any major tinkering with your model?
We’re doing a better job than we used to do posting content throughout the day, which keeps readers coming back to the site. We experimented with covering local sports and the arts, but neither drew much of an audience. I was surprised, in particular, by the lack of interest in our coverage of high school sports. That’s typically a staple of local coverage.

We’ve also learned a lot about how to drive traffic to the site. We publish a daily e-newsletter that is a major source of traffic and of ad revenue.

How important is design?
It’s important, especially when it comes to creating hierarchy among stories. I think many news sites, including ours, don’t do a good job of highlighting the most important stories. We’ll be launching a WordPress site in the next two months that will allow us to create hierarchy [in how content is displayed].

Did other sites inspire you, or did it come out of your own experiences in Bethesda and the seven other communities you’re covering?
When I was an executive at Atlantic Media Co. in Washington, D.C. In the 1990s, we launched CongressDaily, a daily news service covering Congress that used the (then) revolutionary technology of fax broadcasting distribute the news. Doing that, I witnessed the  power and potential of providing breaking news to a special-interest audience. Twenty-five years later we’re basically doing the same thing with new distribution platforms.

In terms of current sites, I certainly paid attention to across the Potomac River in Arlington. Its founder, Scott Brodbeck, figured the model out early and has done a good job. [Hull bought Brodbeck’s Bethesda Now in 2005 and merged it into his Bethesda Beat.]

How many editorial staff members does it require to publish Bethesda Beat?
When we started three years ago, we had one full-time writer and a part-time editor. Today we have three full-time reporters and a nearly full-time editor. With the additional staff, we’re able to do more stories than we previously did, but also give the reporters time to do more enterprise reporting.

How important is community input to what you’re doing?
Very important — and we get it in many ways. We get a fair number of comments on the site (and on Facebook posts). In March, for example, we had 500 commenters and more than 1,800 comments on the site. We follow (and monitor) the comments closely, and learn a lot from them about what readers are looking for. I’m also out in the community every day and have several conversations a day with people about Bethesda Beat — what they like and what they don’t. I also get a lot of story ideas that way, some of which appear in our feature “Since You Asked.”

What do your analytics tell you about how well Bethesda Beat working?
We’ve seen a steady growth in our audience — and the level of engagement with the site (and on social media, Facebook in particular). We’re getting about 225,000 readers a month and the demographics of the audience are strong. We monitor the analytics closely but are not ruled by them. For example, we do a lot of coverage of local governments and schools that doesn’t produce a huge audience but we feel is important.

What’s the feedback — from users, advertisers and the community overall?
The feedback has been positive across the board. When the Gazettes folded two years ago, there was a huge void in the coverage of local news. I think we — and several other even hyper-local sites–have been able to largely, but not entirely, fill that void. Our experience to the contrary, I think there’s still a need for coverage of sports and the arts. I also believe that many of the low-income and rural areas of the county are under-served.

In terms of advertising, we’ve been fortunate. We average about 20 advertisers on Bethesda Beat, between native ads and banner ads. We’re producing strong results for our advertisers in terms of exposures and click-throughs.

A new Street Fight survey found most local merchants are putting most of their ad money into Facebook and other social media. What’s your experience with merchants and Bethesda Beat?
Many local businesses (including us) are using Facebook advertising. But most recognize they need to reach audiences in different ways.

Is Bethesda Beat profitable?
Yes it is. We made an investment this year by hiring a third reporter, but Bethesda Beat is still profitable. Advertising year to date is up about 25% over last year.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.