Dan Robrish Is Alive and Well and Living in Elizabethtown

How a former Philly AP newsman is single-handedly trying to save the newspaper business

At 1508 South Street, just across from the famed dive Bob & Barbara’s, there sits a strange little, badly carpeted bar named Tritone, one of the few places in the city where you can get a shot of Beam and a PBR at happy hour for $2.50 and not be forced to hear “Piano Man” over and over again, since Tritone is the kind of place where, should you try to do that, you will feel really, really unwanted (I got serious flak for playing Bill Withers’ “Use Me Up” because it was once used in a commercial).

As you can imagine, a place like this attracts a crowd that is as strange as the bar itself (case in point: I go there on occasion), and for the longest time, one of the most reliable regulars was Dan Robrish, a stocky, bespectacled AP newsman who was never seen in public without an ill-fitting suit and a fedora, which he’s worn since the 90s (save for a short time in Nevada when he tried wearing a cowboy hat to blend in). But then — I guess it was towards the end of 2009 — Robrish kind of disappeared from the scene. No more sightings on South Street or at the Pen & Pencil or outside of his home at the Wanamaker House. Gone. [SIGNUP]

That is, until a week ago, when I happened to see him sitting at Tritone, the shot, beer, and fedora just where they were supposed to be. The only out-of-place accoutrement was a small newspaper entitled The Elizabethtown Advocate, its cover emblazoned with the headline “High School to Perform Oklahoma!” and an accompanying campy photo depicting Elizabethtown Area High School student Aaron Frishkorn playing the role of Will Parker. Just as I was about to ask Robrish what the hell he was doing reading the 50-cent paper, I noticed the following right next to “VOL. 1, NO. 5”: Copyright 2010 by Dan Robrish, Editor and Publisher.

It turns out, as Robrish went on to explain to me over a couple of drinks, that he left his position with the Associated Press, where he had been for 11-1/2 years, to start The Elizabethtown Advocate in the Lancaster County borough, about 20 miles southeast of Harrisburg. Elizabethtown, known to the younger set as E Town, once had its own newspaper — The Elizabethtown Chronicle — from shortly after the Civil War until early 2009, when the Journal Register conglomerate that owned it went belly up and shut the paper down.

“I had long been interested in running my own newspaper,” explains Robrish from his storefront office at 9 South Market Street, previously home to the Inspiritu beauty salon (the sign and shampoo sink are still in place). “And then I saw this town of 12,000 with no newspaper.” For some, investing in a “dying” newspaper industry and moving from Rittenhouse to a 2.6-square mile borough was a crazy move, but for Robrish, it was a no-brainer.

“It’s often said that newspapers are dying, but that’s a gross oversimplification,” stresses Robrish. “The papers with the big problems are the metropolitan dailies. You can get that information from so many sources. But here, if you want to read a professionally written news story about what the Board of Township Supervisors did on Thursday, you really don’t have much choice but to pick up the Elizabethtown Advocate, because I was the only journalist at that meeting. I am the only game in town.”

And the paper does cover topics other than Oklahoma!. That same issue detailed a statistical error made by the school board, the cost of the recent snowstorms, and a just-approved 115-lot subdivision, in addition to Rachel Tesmer’s victory at the 8th-grade spelling bee (“obedient” and “abbreviation” to win? Please!).

Now about to release his seventh issue, the paper has advertisers that include an optometrist, a soft pretzel bakery (3 for $5.00? Am I missing something?), and a paint-your-own-pottery shop. Robrish says that his subscriptions number “a few hundred,” which is also the same amount he says it costs to print the paper each week and the same amount he pays in office rent per month. But he expects readership to increase dramatically thanks to a subscription fundraising drive by the Order of DeMolay, a male youth group affiliated with the Freemasons, and honor boxes he’ll shortly place at the Elizabethtown Amtrak stop, where many residents pass through each day en route to their jobs in Lancaster and Harrisburg.

And word of his endeavor has spread to other newspaperless small towns in Pennsylvania, some of whom — including neighboring Mt. Joy, where the local newspaper was similarly canned by the Journal Register — have asked him to do the same so that they can know all about their school board, the wrestling team’s tragic defeat, and, of course, the Kiwanis Club’s Annual Spaghetti Dinner.

VICTOR FIORILLO is Philly Mag’s arts and entertainment editor.