Former Associated Press reporter Dan Robrish learned many valuable lessons when he started a newspaper from scratch in a small south central Pennsylvania borough one year ago. The most critical: Wrap up personal stuff before you print that first issue because after that, the newspaper will consume your life.

Robrish, the fedora-wearing, jovial publisher of The Elizabethtown Advocate who would rather walk around the 2.6-square-mile town than drive, said he’s close to profitability. That’s welcome news to the 39-year-old single guy who sunk his life savings ($25,000), drained his retirement account, and reluctantly borrowed from Mom and Dad to start the 600-circulation, six-page broadsheet last February.

His biggest issue has been getting a periodicals mailing permit that will slash distribution costs and allow him to print profitable legal notices. Because he didn’t understand the intricacies of applying for the permit (and neither did Elizabethtown post office officials), Robrish spent months gaining paid subscribers for the application when he could have just applied under a “new launch” procedure. 

“I ended up going through trial and error with a lot of error,” Robrish said. “I think I’m going to be turning a profit finally.”

Just 14 months ago, Robrish was living in downtown Philadelphia, covering the night breaking-news beat for the AP. That usually meant running out to murders, robberies, and accidents until the wee hours of the night.  After 11 years, he’d had it.

“When you’re 25 (years old), it’s really exciting to be dealing with this big breaking news, but after a while, it’s this unrelenting drumbeat of blood and gore,” said Robrish, who now lives behind his Elizabethtown office in a converted beauty parlor. “I don’t miss it at all.”

Friends and family thought Robrish was nuts to start a paid circulation newspaper in such uncertain times. But he had always wanted to be his own boss. He chose the 12,000-population Elizabethtown in part because it had a stop on Amtrak (he didn’t have a car and neither did his friends), and the area had recession-proof businesses (a college, a retirement community, and a chocolate factory). More importantly, the area was hungry for a local newspaper. It hadn’t had one since The Elizabethtown Chronicle closed in late February 2009, a result of the Journal Register Co.’s bankruptcy filing. 

“It was just like the lights went out when the (Chronicle) closed,” said Elizabethtown Mayor Chuck Mummert. “It was a void, honestly, in communicating, a void for obits in the area, and a void of people having an avenue for editorials. I take my hat off to Dan Robrish … he’s weaving himself into the fabric of the community.”

Robrish is the Advocate’s advertising director, circulation manager, reporter, editor, and delivery boy all rolled into one, but he knows his limits. He hired a part-time sports stringer and bartered with a mom-and-pop photography studio to exchange advertising for photographs. That, he said, was a keen business decision.

“They get the word out, and I get much better art than I could take myself,” he said. “And what’s amazing, they can take quality photos outdoors at night.”

And Robrish is able to parlay his local coverage into subscriptions. An official at the Elizabethtown Area School District is so happy with his coverage of the schools, he’s suggested kids take home subscription flyers. The local Boy Scouts troop is selling subscriptions for a fundraiser. And Robrish said he plans to offer fundraising opportunities to athletic booster clubs and the volunteer fire department. He’s also partnered with the local library, which is a private nonprofit, to sell his 50-cent papers. He lets them keep half the profits.
He’s been so busy, he still hasn’t rented out his condominium in Philly, something he just can’t find the time to get around to. 

When he gets the mailing permit, he plans to put up a website and increase circulation, although he’s still trying to figure out how to reset the 75-cent coin drop on six vending boxes he bought from a closed newspaper. Oh yeah, and he’d like to hire a bookkeeper so someone will always be in the office.

Until then, he’ll keep hanging the little clock sign on the Advocate door that tells visitors: Hours by appointment or by happenstance.

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