How MoCo360 represents — and gets support from — its entire community
Written by: Katie Hawkins-Gaar
It all began in Steve and Susan Hull’s basement. In 2004, the duo launched Bethesda Magazine, a glossy lifestyle publication focused on Bethesda and other communities in Montgomery County, Maryland, from the comfort of their home.
In 2014, the Hulls expanded their brand to include Bethesda Beat, a daily online news outlet focused on local coverage. Like its magazine counterpart, Bethesda Beat covered all of Montgomery County.
Both publications were successful; over the years, their audience grew and reporters racked up awards. Then, in March 2021, Steve and Susan Hull made a bittersweet move: They sold Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat to another husband-and-wife team, Scott and Jillian Copeland.
“My wife, Susan, and I knew that we would eventually sell the business, but not until we found a buyer who shared our commitment to local journalism, the community and our staff. We found those buyers in Scott and Jillian,” Hull wrote in his final column.
Now, two years later, the Montgomery County media umbrella has a new name: MoCo360.
Through all the changes, the for-profit organization has maintained a strong connection with its community. In 2018, then-Bethesda Beat joined the News Revenue Hub as a client, looking to boost its fledgling reader membership program. In less than five years, they’ve raised nearly $500,000 from reader contributions.
“The fact that they’ve been able to raise a half a million dollars in volunteer contributions is a testament to how much their community values the reporting that they provide,” said Mary Walter-Brown, founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub.
The MoCo360 rebrand represents an explicit focus on all of Montgomery County — or “MoCo,” as locals call it — a move that Walter-Brown believes will serve the news organization well. “The more that they can expand and be responsive to the ongoing and ever-growing need for news and information across Montgomery County, the better,” she said. “I think they can expect to see even greater support from their community.”
‘A fresh start’
As a for-profit organization, MoCo360 is partly funded by advertising, but that doesn’t cover all of the costs of operating its newsroom. Since joining the Hub in September 2018, MoCo360 has raised $463,638 in reader revenue — money that supports their local reporting on politics, development, crime, education, real estate, and dining.
Elizabeth Moseley, MoCo360’s audience producer, says they strongly encourage recurring memberships — contributions made on a monthly basis. As of March 2023, they have 643 members at the “Enthusiast” level, contributing between $35-$99 per year; 697 “Advocate” members, at $100-$499 per year; and 11 “Champion”-level members, contributing $500 or more per year.
Among other messaging, the Hub helped MoCo360 set up automated emails that are sent to readers when their memberships are about to expire. “Those messages have played a big role in helping us retain members,” Moseley explained. MoCo360 also works with the Hub to send out its quarterly behind-the-scenes newsletter and in running fundraising campaigns throughout the year.
Abbey Gingras, director of consulting services at News Revenue Hub, said that rebrands can offer great opportunities for news organizations in terms of building audience and reader support.
“For MoCo360, this is really a fresh start to reintroduce themselves as a truly Montgomery County publication,” Gingras said. “It’s a chance to reset with existing readers, find an entirely new group of readers, and to show everyone in the community that their journalism is for them — and that it’s invaluable.”
Moseley is especially looking forward to their first fundraising campaign under the new MoCo360 brand, which will launch in a few weeks. “The rebrand is exciting,” she said. “It gives us an opportunity to pivot, to try new things, and hopefully bring in a new group of readers and members.”
‘Journalism is an expensive proposition’
Sumindi Peiris, president of Z-Pop Media, the publisher of MoCo360, was the driving force behind the new MoCo360 brand. She led brainstorms, conducted research, and gathered focus groups. As a longtime Montgomery County resident, she couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
In addition to a new name and look, MoCo360 has an updated mission. Readers on their About page are greeted with a bold welcome: “We believe why we are here is as important as what we do. Our purpose is to strengthen our community and empower individuals through trustworthy journalism that covers the depth and diversity of Montgomery County.”
“We’re one of the largest, most diverse, and affluent counties in the entire country,” Peiris said. By focusing their rebrand on the entire county — not just affluent Bethesda — the news organization has become more intentional and inclusive about their coverage, she explained.
Peiris also wants to be more intentional — and transparent — about making the case for reader contributions. “MoCo360 is a for-profit organization, but [owners] Scott and Jill aren’t looking to make money off of this,” she explained.
“Scott’s commitment is that the money we raise from readers goes back to the newsroom — to grow the team, make sure everyone is fairly paid, and that people are well taken care of,” Peiris continued. “I want our readers to know that journalism is an expensive proposition, and that their contributions are entirely about sustaining this incredible purpose and mission we have for the community.”
Transparency is key to building successful voluntary contribution programs, said Walter-Brown. “As a for-profit newsroom, you have to be willing to share how advertising works, where you have gaps in funding, and how you need local residents to step up and cover those gaps.”
‘Now is the hard part’
Now that the rebrand is in place, MoCo360 is setting its sights on what’s ahead.
The for-profit newsroom recently held a goal-setting session with the Hub during which they discussed their membership, audience and revenue goals for 2023. “It was great,” said Moseley, who joined MoCo360 in September 2022. “I love the insight that the Hub is able to offer. It’s been especially valuable, since I’m relatively new, to see how things have worked in the past. And now that the rebrand is out the door, it’s great to look to the future.”
Gingras, who led the goal-setting meeting on behalf of the Hub, explained that “it’s important to have newsroom stakeholders sit down and talk about their priorities and any limitations they might be facing to achieve those priorities.” By identifying and creating plans to achieve audience and revenue goals, Gingras added, it’s easier for everyone in the organization “to be on the same page, working towards the same top-line objectives, and making decisions with those goals in mind.”
This year, MoCo360 is planning to run at least four fundraising campaigns, a more aggressive approach than previous years. Moseley is looking forward to the work ahead. “Each campaign is a great reminder of how much our members value the work that we do,” she said.
“Now is the hard part,” said Peiris. “While it seemed like the rebrand was a heavy lift, now is the actual hard work. It’s really living what we are saying our purpose is and the pillars that we’re going to live by and measure ourselves with. It’s making sure we represent all parts of our community, accurately and fairly.”
Peiris smiled. “It’s hard work, and we’re lucky to do it.”