LION member spotlight: Germantown Pulse

By Matt DeRienzo | Apr. 17, 2016

Kevin O'Rourke

A Q&A with LION member Kevin O'Rourke, publisher of Germantown Pulse in Maryland.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

I launched Germantown Pulse in August of 2014. It covers Germantown, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C. Germantown is an unincorporated town, about 40 mins northwest of D.C., in Montgomery County. After moving to the area from northern New Jersey in the fall of 2010, I was shocked that there was no weekly newspaper dedicated to just Germantown. With a population of almost 100,000 people, the local newspaper was the venerable Gazette, which was based-countywide with separate front pages for different sections of the county. Even still there would be just two or three Germantown-specific stories each week. They didn’t have a big Internet presence.

Working at local weekly newspapers in New Jersey, for towns that were much smaller, I knew there was more news being generated in Germantown that people would want to know about. I thought the Germantown Pulse, online only news would just supplement the Gazette’s coverage. I thought the weekly newspaper could cover the bulk of the county government news and I could focus on more local stories of interest. Ten months later, the Gazette announced that they were closing up shop and stopping publication. It left me as the only news and information source covering Germantown. As a result, I have had to do more county government stuff and I have expanded to cover the neighboring communities of Clarksburg, Boyds, and portions of Damascus. Most of what is collectively known as Up County Montgomery County.

One of the reasons I started Germantown Pulse was that as a result of Germantown being an unincorporated postal area, Germantown has no mayor, or high school. (There are three high schools in town, but none are named Germantown High School). The area has gone from being farmland and forest to having a growing population of more than 100,000 in 15 years. There isn’t a lot of local civic pride. There isn’t much the citizens of Germantown can call their own. I want Germantown Pulse to be a source of civic pride.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

Directly before starting Germantown Pulse, I was a stay-at-home dad to my two kids for 10 years. Before that, I worked as a trade journalist for national trade magazines. I was managing editor for Convenience Store News and Beverage Aisle, and before that I was a staff writer at other retail trade magazines and newsletters.

But before that, right out of college, I worked at local weekly newspapers. I worked as the managing editor for a small newspaper in Union, New Jersey, for a few years. There I learned news, style, layout, and the art of writing editorials. Every week, the paper had to have an opinion on something. It was great training. While I don’t write editorials every week, I do occasionally write an opinion piece. While Germantown Pulse does not have a print edition, I still like to think of it as a newspaper for the 21st Century. I believe newspapers should have a voice. Should speak for the people they cover. Should advocate for change. So I do occasionally write opinion pieces. I also welcome the opinions of others, even if they don’t agree with my own. A community requires the airing of different opinions.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

Small time. Fly by the seat of your pants. I laugh when people call it “an operation.” It is essentially me. I report, write, edit, do web design, sell ads, and take photos. I have one photographer who helps me cover local high school sports who is a volunteer, and just last month I took on a sales person who is only making money if she sells ads.

I started from the editorial side. Much of the business side of things is “feel my way through it.” While I spent much of the last 10 years as a dad online, I had no idea how Google Ads worked and still don’t have much interest in it. I don’t think my readers what ads for Phoenix University or some terrible “click bait” come-on. They want to see ads for local businesses. My business model is I want to be the place where local residents come for news, where local merchants come to get their brand in front of local residents. The ads are sold to local merchants. I don’t have Google Ads, or any of the automated ad programs. Our ads are organic and local.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

There is a local cable news station that I consider my best competition, but since they don’t sell ads, they are not really competitors for business, only eyeballs. My real competition is the Patch, which I don’t consider competition because I can tell they have one editor to cover three Maryland counties. I would hardly consider a news story happening in two counties away local news, the Patch, however, does. What bothers me is when people confuse my site with the Patch, because they were here first.

Of course the local Washington, D.C., news outlets are competitors for news and information, but they are not business competitors. They may be stealing eyeballs for some stories, but my advertisers aren’t their advertisers. However, I’d like their advertisers to be my advertisers.

5. What makes your site unique?

It is all local all the time. If something happens a quarter-mile past what I have drawn as the boundaries for my “coverage area,” I don’t cover it. If, Heaven forbid, there is a mass-murder in the next town over, I don’t cover it. However, if one of those murdered or the murderer is from Germantown, then I will cover it. I don’t want to dilute my coverage. I want my readers to know that if you are reading something on my site, it is something that you should be interested in because it is happening in your area. Local people, local neighborhoods, local kids, local problems, local crime ­– local news.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

I wish I would have known that the Gazette was going to go out of business. When that happened, for me this went from being a full-time hobby that might make some money, to a calling that needed to continue to provide news and information to my community. The responsibility and opportunity increased exponentially.

I would start with a business plan. Start with a partner who would go out and sell ads from the very beginning. I would put more money into marketing to let the business community know that we are here.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

My biggest source of pride is when people find out that Germantown Pulse is essentially a one-man show and say to me, “But you guys are everywhere. You cover everything. How can you do that alone?” or they tell me that they love reading it, and how important it is for the community. It makes up for the long hours and lack of pay. That and the idea that in less than three years, I have taken this brand and made it into something that 30,000 people each month are looking to for news and information, and they are putting their trust in that brand.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

I struggle with balancing editorial time with time selling ads. I am still building an audience, and maintaining the audience I have requires content and engagement. Unique, engaging content requires time and energy. Time and energy that is also required to sell ads to make this endeavor profitable. I don’t think of myself as a businessman or even a publisher. I am a journalist and I forget that nobody is paying me except me.

Since joining LION, my eyes have been opened to many other possibilities for Germantown Pulse and it has given me hope that in the future, Germantown Pulse will be more informative and profitable.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

Big picture stuff -- I want to continue to increase the size of our audience. I want to be the voice of the Up County. I want Germantown Pulse to be the go to place for news and information for the entire Up County Montgomery County area.

Small picture – I want advertisers demanding to pay me because Germantown Pulse is the go-to place for news and information. I want to find other ways to create content. Experiment with more video and try to get more ways for readers to interact. I want get a smart phone app to push stories directly to readers’ pockets, without having to go through the Twitter/FaceBook middle man.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

I joined LION because I needed a place to talk to other people who were dealing with some of the day-to-day issues I was being confronted with on a regular basis. Working from home with just the dog to bounce ideas off of or ask advice from is difficult. This business often brings up gray areas where a misstep can hurt everything you’ve worked so hard to build. To me having the LION’s Den is like having a newsroom bullpen to throw ideas to. “Hey guys, what do you think of…” Having a sounding board has been very helpful.

Since joining LION Publishers, my eyes have been opened to so much more the world in which I have dedicated myself to as a vocation. It reminds me that I am not just a scribe writing about the sins and accomplishments of my community, but a businessman. It has been helpful to cultivate the publisher inside of me.