When Dan Robrish was interviewed for a reporting job at the Associated Press in 1998, he was asked about his professional ambitions. “I said my career goal was to own my own newspaper, at which point there was stunned silence,” Robrish recalls. “Usually they get answers like, ‘I want to be a foreign correspondent’ or ‘I want to cover the Supreme Court’ or something like that.”
Robrish got the post and, as the 38-year old reflected the other day, has now finally accomplished his goal, as well. Robrish is about to begin his third month as the founding editor, publisher, and only employee of The Elizabethtown Advocate, a weekly community newspaper he launched in Elizabethtown, a town of 12,000 people in Pennsylvania.
He may own his own newspaper but Robrish’s is not quite the glamorous life of a media mogul. He had spent the morning hand-delivering copies to stores and the two functioning coin boxes where his newspaper is sold. Robrish writes nearly everything except high-school sports coverage in the assiduously local newspaper. He was speaking from a late-afternoon Amtrak train to Philadelphia, where he was heading for a dinner party, able to leave Elizabethtown only because he had the confidence that a new college intern would be able to cover that evening’s Borough Council meeting.
Robrish had spent over a decade covering more momentous news as a reporter and editor in the AP’s Philadelphia bureau but his pension matured when he decided to move on. Robrish carried on working the night shift and spent his days scouting for a newspaper he could afford to buy with his savings. He came close to acquiring a small paper in northern Minnesota but retreated when the owner was cagey about its finances. (“One problem is that the little papers I could afford to buy had loosey-goosey book-keeping,” says Robrish.) But when he saw that the Journal Register chain had filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its weekly Elizabethtown Chronicle, Robrish set out to take a look at the place.
He first visited Elizabethtown in late August and saw all the prerequisites for community-newspaper success. There were three major employers he considered recession-proof: Elizabethtown College, a large nursing home and a sweet factory owned by Mars. The downtown was filled with independent retailers who represented a base of potential advertisers. And the city had, despite tough economic times, recently finished construction of a new library. “When I saw that, I thought: this is a town that values reading,” Robrish says. “You see a town this big that has no paper and you think, here’s an opportunity.”
By December he had quit his job at the AP and by January was looking for a place to live in Elizabethtown. The next month, he was already putting out a paper from a store-front office. The Advocate goes for 50 cents a copy, or $20 for an annual subscription. He has been selling about 300 copies a week; he hopes one day to match the Chronicle‘s old circulation of about 2,000 and expand his roster of advertisers. The latest good news is that a local Boy Scout troop decided to sell subscriptions door-to-door, after its leader heard Robrish’s pitch at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. “The best thing is if you have kids selling it, it’s hard to say no,” Robrish says.
An industry-wide crisis has sent American journalism into a violent sorting-out, reshaping not only the types of publications that survive but the character of its workforce. Newsrooms are emptying because of layoffs, buyouts, and attrition and many talented reporters who once filled their desks are now in graduate schools, government jobs or public-relations firms. Entrepreneurialism is becoming the unlikely trait uniting those who choose to stay in the field.
When Denver’s Rocky Mountain News folded just over a year ago, some of its staffers left journalism. One group of refugees launched an online news magazine, The Rocky Mountain Independent; the paper’s Washington correspondent, the intrepid ME Sprengelmeyer, bought the Guadalupe County Communicator, a small-town newspaper in New Mexico, and became its editor and publisher (The Independent has since folded, the Communicator goes strong.)
Perhaps the most impressive American journalism startup of the last few years, the Washington-based Politico, was created not by a corporate visionary but two frustrated Washington Post reporters.
The key lesson Robrish has learned is that, despite the challenges of starting a newspaper from scratch, he was better off doing that than buying one and trying to fix it up. “I would have probably been known as that jerk from the big city who cost so-and-so a job,” Robrish reflects. “Instead, I’m that great guy who came in and started a newspaper where we didn’t have one.”