A Q&A with LION member Joe Zlomek, publisher of The Sanatoga Post.
1 and 2. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded? What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
My company, The Post Publications LLC, launched its first product, The Sanatoga Post, on Aug. 25, 2008. It was followed by The Limerick Post on Jan. 5, 2009; and by The Pottstown Post on June 5, 2009. All three coverage areas, with Pottstown on the west, Sanatoga in the center, and Limerick on the east, run in a 12-mile line within western Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, between the old two-lane U.S. Route 422, better known as Ridge Pike (east) or High Street (west), and its parallel four-lane limited access successor, the new U.S. Route 422 only a couple of miles south. The Schuylkill River is the common geographic asset here; it powered all the mills and foundries that still dot the historic landscape. We have tried other companion publications, but they did not catch on and were dropped.
I have been a news reporter, editor and publisher for most of my adult life. I sold my first freelance article at age 16 to an independent weekly in Utica, New York, called "Drums Along The Mohawk," and never looked back. I got my first reporting job out of college with former New York Congressman George Wortley's weeklies in Syracuse, and then moved to a daily in Oneida where my life changed. The Oneida Daily Dispatch was owned by Ingersoll Newspapers at the time, and I seemed to fit the mold of people who Ralph Ingersoll II and his colleagues wanted. Between 1983 and 1991 I became publisher first in Oneida, then general manager in Fall River, Massachusetts, then publisher in Terre Haute, Indiana, Toms River, New Jersey, and here in Pottstown. I ran a public relations shop for 11 years after leaving newspapers in 1991, but during that stint also served as associate editor of a technology monthly in Philadelphia. I founded The Posts primarily because I missed being in the business.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We are for-profit from advertising only and we do, indeed, turn a profit, but we fall into Michelle McLellan's $50,000 and under revenue category. We are straight news first, features second, and sports a dismal third (reason: I've never been good at sports). We rely marginally on freelancers and community-supplied pieces. I still do almost all of the reporting and writing, usually between three and seven stories daily. We publish generally by 7 a.m. Monday though Saturday. I take Sundays off for sanity. Our circulation, although small by comparison to other LION publishers, has been growing annually. We publish our numbers monthly for the world to see, here: http://sanatogapost.com/advertising/
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
The newspaper I formerly published, The Pottstown Mercury, is my chief competitor. I focus on smaller areas, I cover fewer municipalities and school districts. I'm on friendly terms with almost everyone on its now much-diminished staff, but we still fight in the trenches daily in those areas we have in common. There are two other print vehicles against which I compete but less intensely, the also-Digital First Media-owned Norristown Times Herald, and the family-owned Reading Eagle. There is an Allentown, Pennsylvania, TV station that occasionally hits here, but the other print, broadcast and online media outlets are Philly-based and, consequently, not local.
5. What makes your site unique?
We treat all three publications as though they were one, and we consistently refer to them as a network. Some stories we publish are found on only one site; some on all three. Except for background color changes, the sites all physically look the same to our readers. Our daily newsletter and RSS feeds contain all the stories offered each day, no matter which site they originate from. The close proximity of the municipalities we serve lets us do this pretty seamlessly, and we've found the benefit is heightened commenter chatter across Facebook and Twitter.
In 2012 we were fortunate enough to have Columbia Journalism Review write a feature piece that explained some aspects of what we do. Find it here.
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
When I started I was SEO ignorant. I knew what it was, I knew why it was important, I just did not know enough of any of it to pay attention. The best advice I can give other start-ups is to know SEO as well as you know the community you will cover. It took me far too long to understand our sites' numbers and how simple changes can make them zoom or plummet. I've made substantial progress over the years, but I could have been much farther ahead had I fully grasped what was at stake.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
People walk up to me in a supermarket. I haven't got a clue who they are. They, on the other hand, know me by name and by sight. And they'll say something about how much they liked a story we ran earlier. I'll smile, shake their hands, say thanks, get their name and later put it in my database with a note. Sometimes I'll even shout out to them from our Facebook page, and get a response. That experience, and it happens regularly now, always blows me away. We're making a difference to someone six of seven mornings a week. I'm very proud of that.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
I have big plans, bigger ambition, and never enough time.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site(s)?
Two things: we must produce sports. Readership will jump by 35 percent over 6 months if we're consistent at it. And we've got to provide obituaries. They will jump readership by another 10 percent. I think we've found a way to now automate both, but I'm still tweaking the coding.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
LION is a group of highly motivated entrepreneurs who, for the most part, have already been there, done that, and hand-printed the souvenir T-shirt themselves. In 20 minutes worth of a morning read on the group's Facebook page, I learn more about what I should be doing next than I could in a week's worth of seminars. I'm lucky to be able to learn from our members.
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