SANATOGA, PENNSYLVANIA — When Joseph Zlomek decided to go back into the news business in August 2008 and launch The Sanatoga Post, he drew inspiration from nostalgia. Zlomek had fond, decades-old memories of the Eagle Bulletin, a small weekly based in Fayetteville, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse, near where he was raised. The paper, Zlomek says, was regularly the hottest read among townsfolk. “They had stuff that meant something to them. I wanted to recapture that feeling.”
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With a steady mix of schools coverage, police blotter items, and sometimes-lively comments board discussions, Zlomek’s now three-year-old venture has certainly delivered on many of community journalism’s staples. But a more tangible measure of Zlomek’s success may be the site’s traffic, which Quantcast measures at about 5,000 people a month, numbers that include five affiliated sites. That traffic isn’t shabby for a coverage area of around 50,000 people that includes neighboring towns Pottstown and Limerick, exurbs of Philadelphia. Zlomek attributes most of the success to what he says is a neutral approach to news stories.
“I made the determination early on that I was not going to editorialize,” Zlomek says. “That has worked out very, very well.” Neutral coverage, he says, also helps him cast the widest possible net for his audience. “I’ve personally concluded that an editorial opinion published by any media is resented, and not seen as helpful, by its audience,” he says. “I have come to believe that people want to be informed, not convinced.”
A longtime newspaperman, Zlomek graduated from Syracuse University in 1977 and spent subsequent decades working at a string of dailies and weeklies in towns from the Midwest to the East Coast, including Toms River, N.J., Terre Haute, Ind., Fall River, Mass., and Oneida, N.Y. One highlight of his career came while he was publisher of Pottstown, Pa.’s The Mercury in 1990, a year that saw the 27,500-circulation daily win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, the second Pulitzer in the paper’s history.
But Zlomek left The Mercury just a year later after disagreeing with ownership about the direction of the newspaper, a decision that started a 16-year hiatus from journalism, which he spent in marketing. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that Zlomek says that he got the itch to come back, partially due to the decline of local media like The Mercury.
“I felt like my community was getting short shrift,” Zlomek says, referring to Sanatoga. “I decided that I could take a stab at creating an online experience.”
Besides, he thought, he certainly had enough training. “I started writing professionally when I was sixteen. I’m fifty-six now, so I’ve been in this for a while.”
Some of Zlomek’s most popular stories come from his schools coverage, including, more recently, a controversy at one nearby district centering on the district’s potential reorganization. Some of the all-time most-read stories on his site, however, focus on readers’ pocketbooks. One story, from February 2011, about the nearby construction of a new Costco, has generated more than 2,600 page views for the site, while another, about new card-dealing jobs at a Valley Forge casino, garnered almost 2,000 page views. Zlomek says that he runs several such stories a month for their value as traffic draws, though they are a far cry from what the site began as originally. “When I started [the traffic] was me reading my own stuff,” he says. “The earlier stories mostly deal with people: who caught the first trout the first day of fishing?”
Over time, Zlomek has tweaked his approach to the site, eschewing longer pieces in favor of shorter posts, which he says draw in more hits. “It’s almost a throwback to what newspapers used to be in the 1930s,” Zlomek says. “Lots of column items.” The site’s reader metrics also figure into the way Zlomek approaches stories, but only on how he might present the content, not his news judgment itself.
“People want shorter material, but as short as the material is, they still want it in-depth,” he says. That approach can mean many things, from numerous short posts about a single school board meeting to embedded links in stories that give readers opportunities to learn more about a given subject. “Rather than hit readers with one big overview piece that no one will read past the third graf, we break the news into related component parts and show readers, with these lists, how they tie together,” Zlomek says, referring in part to a Feb. 21 story that he says is a model for many of his posts.
The Sanatoga Post has since spawned five other online publications, including The Pottstown Post and The Main Street Post, a business-oriented site. Some of Zlomek’s stories end up on all of the sites, while other stories are site-specific.
The workload, Zlomek says, ends up being about 1,300 words a day for him alone, in addition to three unpaid contributors that write once a month. The Sanatoga Post gets at least three stories a day, while the Pottstown and Limerick editions get at least one. The Main Street Post, meanwhile, is budgeted for new content at least twice a week.
“That’s not a big load by any stretch,” Zlomek says, adding that he also cross-links many of the sites to maximize pageviews without hurting his Google ranking. One thing none of the sites do is cover local sports, however, a gap that Zlomek says is intentional. “It’s not my forte,” he says. “You stick with what you know.”
Zlomek has still kept his job in marketing, even as ad sales have picked up in recent months at the site, partially because of hotly-debated issues at local schools. But Zlomek remains the site’s primary writer, while accepting some submissions from other unpaid contributors and photographers. He uses Google and the hyperlocal service Local Yokel to sell ads, and also makes some direct sales to local businesses. Zlomek declined to reveal revenue numbers to CJR, but he did say that they were modest. “There’s not enough revenue yet to say, ‘God, I can make a living at this,’ ” Zlomek says. “But it’s enough revenue to make you happy.”
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