DAILY ALUM LAUNCHES PENNSYLVANIA NEWSPAPERBy Jake Weyer
Newspapers haven’t been a popular business venture for many entrepreneurs lately—at least not in print form
But the contraction and closure of established newspapers throughout the country in recent years has presented an opportunity for those brave enough to take a shot at filling in the gaps. Dan Robrish, a former Minnesota Daily reporter and news editor who spent a decade working as the night breaking news reporter for the Associated Press in Philadelphia, stepped up to the challenge last year with a new paper in Elizabethtown, PA.
“It’s been a longtime dream to run my own newspaper,” said Robrish, publisher and editor of the Elizabethtown Advocate. “And clearly, this town needed one.”
The 600-circulation, six-page weekly broadsheet serves a town of 12,000 that lost its community newspaper in 2009. It’s been about a year and a half since the Elizabethtown Advocate’s first issue, and though the fledgling paper has a long way to go, Robrish expects profitability within the next month.
Robrish, 39, said that for more than a decade, he was the unhappy guy sipping a beer on a barstool, talking about the big plans he had for the future.
“Unlike most of the guys who do that, I actually [followed through],” said the former Dailyite, who worked at the student newspaper in the mid-1990s during a two-year stint at the University of Minnesota.
He said his job with the Associated Press wasn’t going anywhere and he was no longer content doing the same thing, so he decided to do something about it. He initially placed ads with local newspaper associations, inquiring about papers available for purchase. He found some opportunities, but nothing was the right fit.
Robrish ultimately decided that starting a new publication would be better, because he would be free of any reputation issues or expectations associated with existing papers. After visiting and researching Elizabethtown, which is just under two-hours outside of Philadelphia, Robrish decided it was his best option. Aside from the town’s obvious news void, Robrish said its location on a train route and its “recession proof” businesses—a local college, large senior-care complex and Mars candy factory—made it appealing.
He quit his job and moved to the town, where he signed a lease on an apartment and an adjacent former salon that he converted into an office. Using business lessons learned through meetings with small business owners and other professionals, Robrish started building his newspaper. He also learned a lot on the fly, and ended up spending far more money than he anticipated. Through rent, printing costs, mailing costs and other expenses, he cleaned $25,000 out of his bank account, dipped into his savings and even had to borrow money from his family to get the paper started and keep it running.
A struggle to receive approval to mail at the periodicals rate rather than the standard mail rate proved costly for a long time, he said. Mailing as a periodical is not only cheaper, but it also allows the Elizabethtown Advocate to run income-generating legal notices, which now contribute significantly to the paper’s bottom line.
The black and white paper runs local retail ads as well, and Robrish hopes to print some of those in color soon. The paper is subscription based and costs $20 a year.
Aside from managing the business aspects of the paper, Robrish does nearly all of the editorial and production work. Local government is the paper’s coverage focus, but Robrish hired a stringer to cover area sports.
He is intensely busy, especially on Thursdays, when the paper is printed and distributed. On those days, he hangs a sign on the office door to inform visitors that he is available only by appointment or happenstance.
“Everything takes a back seat to getting the paper out,” he says.
Robrish said his days at the Daily, when he got the paper out of a long rut of late submissions to the printer, helped him learn how to work under deadline pressure.
“It helped a lot to be working under daily deadlines at a place where professionalism is valued as much as it is,” he said.
Robrish hopes to eventually hire around six full-time employees, starting with a bookkeeper and office manager. He hopes to eventually start other small papers in communities that need them. Such startups will also create positions for journalists who share his ambition, he said.
“I’m very glad I did this,” Robrish said. “It’s what I needed to do.”
Robrish recently launched a website for the Elizabethtown Advocate at etownpa.com and the paper also has a Facebook page.