LION member spotlight: Bethesda Beat
A Q&A with LION member Steve Hull, publisher of Bethesda Beat in Maryland.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We launched Bethesda Beat in the spring of 2014. It covers the southern half of Montgomery County, Maryland, an area with a population of about 500,000, just outside of Washington, D.C.. We started Bethesda Beat because we saw an editorial need and advertising opportunity. The Washington Post had cut way back on its local coverage and the weekly newspaper in our market (which was owned by the Post) was struggling financially and wasn't keeping on top of the news. (The weekly closed about a year after we launched Bethesda Beat.)
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
Other than a few years working on Capitol Hill as a press secretary, I've been in the publishing business my entire career. I started working as a newspaper reporter and editor, became a magazine editor and then an executive at Atlantic Media Company for 14 years. While at Atlantic Media, I was the managing director of PoliticsNow, a political news website covering the 1996 election that was a joint venture of several media companies, including the Post. It was exciting being on the frontier of news coverage on the internet, although also harrowing. On election night we lost our connection to our servers in Palo Alto and nobody could get into our site!
I left the Atlantic 14 years ago to start Bethesda Magazine, a city and regional magazine covering the same area that Bethesda Beat now covers.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
Bethesda Beat is entirely advertising supported. Because we also publish a magazine, we have a relatively large (5 people) and experienced full-time sales staff. They sell ads in Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
We don't have a direct competitor, although there are several town-specific news blogs in the communities we serve. The Washington Post covers Montgomery County, but it has cut back on local coverage in general and doesn't really cover incremental news (government meetings, hearings, etc.), which, to me, is the foundation of local reporting.
5. What makes your site unique?
I think it's the tie-in with Bethesda Magazine, which gave us instant credibility, contacts and a built-in advertising base. We, obviously, had to demonstrate to our readers that we could cover day-to-day news, but having the magazine was a big advantage.
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?
Our strength is reporting on the news. We tried covering the local arts scene and high school sports. We spent a fair amount of time and money on both–and didn't attract much of an audience. My advice would be early on stay focused on what you do best and what the audience responds to.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Two things. First, the fact that we are the primary source of local news for a community of 500,000 people. Second, the amount of engagement we get. We routinely get more than 1,500 comments a month on our stories.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Washingtonpost.com has sophisticated ad targeting tools that we can't compete with. We have to sell our advertisers on the engagement of our audience and the versatility of our ad offerings.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
Serve more of Montgomery County and start new sites in other markets.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
We are always looking to improve Bethesda Beat, and increase the audience and advertising. There's no better way to do that than learning from others in the business. I'm grateful that LION makes that easy to do.
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