Swimming in Good Ink
Former golf instructor Dan Starnes dove headlong into newspaper publishing and has ringed Birmingham with a chain of six suburban monthlies.
Mass layoffs in the newspaper industry provided Starnes Publishing with a lively pool of freelance writing talent.
Dan Starnes, owner of Starnes Publishing, which produces six thriving suburban monthly newspapers in the Birmingham area, shakes his head a bit when he considers how quickly he went from novice ad salesman living on a shoestring budget to successful publisher.
He attributes his success to a combination of luck, determination, business savvy, a little help, and most of all, the need for his publications. “There was a real void in the media landscape, a hunger in the communities for local news,” Starnes says. “And we filled that need.”
Starnes was in his mid-30s, an assistant golf pro and part-time junior college student in 2008 when he took a part-time ad sales job for “280 Living,” a new monthly newspaper. “I didn’t think much of the job’s potential. I didn’t know whether I would work there three days or three weeks,” Starnes says. “But after six months, I ended up buying the publication.”
Originally Starnes envisioned the ad sales job would provide a little extra money to supplement his living expenses while attending Jefferson State Community College. “I attended the University of Georgia right after high school, but I wasn’t focused and didn’t end up earning a degree,” Starnes said. “Jeff State seemed a good way to improve my business skills.”
While Starnes — a former golf caddy originally from Cedartown, Georgia, who had recently turned pro — didn’t really enjoy instructing golfers at Birmingham Country Club, he soon developed a passion for ad sales. “I didn’t sit around and whine and cry when people kept telling me ‘no,’” he says. “I just persevered through the first 20 who rejected my pitch to the next five who told me ‘yes.’”
Six months later, the owner of “280 Living” offered to sell the publication to Starnes for a small sum, and he jumped at the chance, because he saw the potential for the publication’s growth. “I started in June 2008 with no money, no credit and myself the only employee,” he says.
Undercapitalized and starting off his business during the Great Recession, Starnes kept the publication going with his sales skills and business instincts. Several classes he had taken at Jeff State, including accounting and Microsoft Office, were critical in helping him run his fledging enterprise. “My living expenses were low, fortunately,” he says. “I was renting a one-bedroom for $500 a month. I knew I could live on a minimum of $1,000 a month if need be.”
While Starnes knew little about journalism, thanks to spell check and his brother’s newspaper experience, Starnes was able to push ahead as publisher. Based in New Jersey, Starnes’ brother was always just an email or phone call away. “I can tell you right now, in all honesty, that if it hadn’t been for my brother, who is a real journalist, I could never have done this,” Starnes says.
Starnes says he was also fortunate in that mass layoffs at Southern Progress and The Birmingham News had created a large, value-priced freelance pool for him to draw upon for his award-winning publications. “There is so much talent in this area, not only those with years of experience, but also new talent, such as Sydney Cromwell, who is now our managing editor,” he says.
Another stroke of luck came Starnes’ way in 2009, when he met and started dating his wife, math teacher Alison Grizzle. After a trip she took to Chicago, Grizzle brought Starnes’ attention to the metropolitan area’s zoned suburban newspapers, giving him the idea to start something similar in the Birmingham area. “I looked at Mountain Brook and thought that if another publication would work anywhere in the area, it would definitely work there,” Starnes says of the affluent community, which advertisers seek to target.
“Village Living” was born with its first issue in April 2010. The next day Starnes received a call from the Homewood Chamber of Commerce encouraging him to start a similar newspaper in the Homewood area. The first issue of “The Homewood Star” was published in April the next year. “For a long time I just worked out of my place. I’d have to collect the money from the ad sales before I could pay the printer for each issue,” Starnes says. “Because the publications are delivered via mail, I didn’t have to worry about hiring staff to distribute it.”
Starnes considered publishing the newspapers more often than monthly but opted for timelier and less expensive daily email newsletters and online content instead. He began adding key staff members in 2012, including Sales Manager Matthew Allen.
By October 2012, Starnes was publishing the “Hoover Sun” and then by May 2013, “Vestavia Voice.” A sixth monthly publication “Cahaba Sun,” a joint publication in association with the weekly “Trussville Tribune,” came on board in November 2014. Starnes Publishing now has 35 staff and contract workers, including 17 fulltime employees. “With all our publications, currently we are up to a monthly circulation of 100,000,” he says.
Starnes is looking at yet another Birmingham suburb for his next publication but isn’t yet ready to disclose any specifics. “There are real advantages to multiple publications,” Starnes says. “Instead of relying on a freelance graphic artist, who has to fit you in with other projects, for example, you can have a fulltime employee who only works on your publications and is there when you need them.”
Another advantage is the need for your own building and ability to finance it, he says. Starnes recently purchased and moved into the Becker Building in Homewood. “We’re not using all of it and have several tenants,” he says. “So we have room to expand in the future if need be.”
Starnes believes the future of suburban newspapers is bright. While the longtime biweekly publication “Over the Mountain Journal” also covers Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia Hills and north Shelby County, he believes there is plenty of room for both publications. “OTMJ has been doing a good job for 20 years,” Starnes says. “People here want to know as much as they can about what is going on in their communities.”
He is proud of his publications’ contributions, which have been recognized with numerous awards, including for public service, by the Alabama Press Association. “We see ourselves as providing a needed service to the residents of the communities,” Starnes says. “Ultimately we consider that our greatest achievement.”
Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.