By Wade Kwon
Stephen Humphreys, left, and Chuck Leishman
Birmingham Weekly made its reputation on untangling the lies and the financial misdeeds of former mayor Larry Langford. Just 2 years later, the alternative paper now finds itself enmeshed in its own set of accusations and denials, questionable figures and sobering facts.
In June, the weekly publication quietly changed hands from publisher Chuck Leishman to Stephen Humphreys. In doing so, it began to dig itself out of a financial hole that continues to limit its operations.
Friday, editor Sam George tweeted his resignation over a pay dispute. In his statement published on his personal website, he wrote, “I can no longer ask myself, my employees or my writers to continue to work with out the compensation and com fort they are due.”
In this exclusive investigative report for Media of Birmingham, we talk to staff members who shaped the paper over the past decade and uncover the internal troubles that have placed it in its current situation.
(Note: The author co-owns Birmingham media outlet Magic City Post.)
The recent change in publishers is cloaked in mystery. The paper hasn’t published anything on the transition itself, save for updating the masthead with the new publisher’s name and company of ownership, from Leishman’s Magnolia Media to Humphreys’ Birmingham Communications.
Humphreys was co-owner of the Weekly for 11 years and served on the board of Magnolia Media, along with Ben Eason, then-owner of the chain of alternative newspapers, Creative Loafing. Humphreys says the Weekly had tax liabilities under Leishman’s management. The ownership agreement permitted Humphreys to seize the paper’s assets without incurring any of its past debts to the government, printing companies and other vendors, including freelance writers and photographers. Leishman still owns the Weekly Card program.
According to Humphreys, he became owner and publisher on June 2. In that first month, he says ad revenue has doubled, but declined to name a dollar figure. He also says circulation was at 20,000, down from a high of 25,000 — though he amended his answers for follow-up questions about the paper’s circulation.
Under Humphreys’ short tenure, the paper immediately relocated from its downtown office of the past 5 years to then-editor Sam George’s house, specifically his basement. George says the transition to the paper’s new office in Avondale is still in progress, but Humphreys says the move is finished. Current copies, even newspaper boxes, of the Weekly remain difficult to locate across town, and the website continues to mosey along, with comment sections riddled with spambot entries on the latest stories.
George, who Leishman promoted from staff writer to editor in July 2010, is the latest in a series of high profile departures from the Weekly during the past 2 years. While he is owed no money, George writes via email that “a number of paychecks were not received by a number of writers over a sustained period of time”; he would not specify how much was owed.
He added that he tried to work out payments for writers with Humphreys but could not reach an agreement. In reference to Humphreys, George added, “I will not work with someone who cannot fulfill his responsibilities and makes it impossible for me to fulfill mine.”
Humphreys responds via email, “I am not aware of any person who is owed money, or any person who was not paid within less than 30 days of performing any services for the Weekly since the transition to ownership by the new company, Birmingham Communications LLC.
“A decision was made to make significant changes in the editorial department over a month ago. It had nothing to do with any issue raised (by George). I can confirm that Sam George was previously an independent contractor for the new company but is no longer associated with the paper. Other than that, we do not intend to comment on any internal personnel matters.”
When asked who Humphreys would appoint as replacement editor, he writes, “We do intend to keep putting out the Weekly, as usual, from our new office in Avondale where everyone who is part of our long-term plans is fully moved in and we look forward to some additions. … It is inevitable that people come and go, and the paper has never been about any one person.”
In an earlier interview, Humphreys had said, “I’m very happy with the editorial staff that we have,” pointing out the main changes would be to revamp the business staff.
The masthead from the current issue lists two editorial staff members, the departed George and editorial assistant Katherine Webb.
This isn’t the first time that the Weekly has been called out for its business practices. The newspaper’s recent history shows a pattern of troubling financial problems hidden from staff members, advertisers, vendors and readers.
Perhaps most significant is that Birmingham Weekly was in arrears on payroll taxes for close to 2 years, according to current and former staffers. Humphreys says that when he and fellow Magnolia Media board member Ben Eason became of aware of the situation, “We made it clear (to Leishman) that that couldn’t happen.”
Glenny Brock, left, Weekly editor and writer for more than 9 years,
found out the hard way when the Internal Revenue Service contacted her about a discrepancy in taxes withheld contacted the Internal Revenue Service over a question about payroll taxes in her paycheck. From her discussions with the IRS, she figured out that while Leishman had withheld payroll taxes from her paychecks, the IRS never received those payments. (Corrected Sept. 8 to show Brock initiated contact with the IRS.)
“At the time, the money he failed to send to the IRS, I honestly believed he was using that money to keep the lights on and to pay the printer bills, and then it began to spiral,” Brock says. At the same time, she says she was worried for her own financial liability because of the missing payroll taxes to the IRS, which she says focused on the management at Magnolia Media rather than its employees.
She says when she confronted Leishman directly in late 2009 and early 2010, he told her the Weekly was six or seven quarters behind in its payroll taxes. Brock says, “It’s gross mismanagement.”
Leishman declined repeated requests for comment “at the advice of counsel,” also citing a nondisclosure agreement between him and Humphreys.
The printers’ bills in question have caused more ongoing struggles for the Weekly. The publication had used the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer until 2009, when it switched to Signature Offset, a Boulder, Colo.-based printing chain.
Kyle Whitmire, left, the Weekly’s award-winning columnist and writer for 9 years, alleges that Leishman left behind an outstanding debt of at least $15,000 at the Ledger-Enquirer. Meanwhile, Humphreys’ new company Birmingham Communications pays for each week’s print run in advance at Signature’s plant in Olive Branch, Miss., an unusual arrangement for a publisher.
When Leishman was asked about printer debts at the Ledger-Enquirer and Signature Offset, he again refused to comment “at the advice of counsel.” A representative at the Ledger-Enquirer could not be reached for comment; Signature Offset refused comment.
Whitmire says, “Humphreys knew about all this stuff, and to take ownership and to wash his hands of it is pretty slimy.” Whitmire and Brock are co-owners of Weld for Birmingham, a new alternative weekly newspaper and website.
Humphreys says, “I have a new company that’s completely debt free. I don’t know that what we discussed at a (Magnolia Media) board meeting is public information. I’d rather let Magnolia Media deal with Magnolia Media.”
The beginnings of the Weekly
It was a sudden tragedy that first pulled Humphreys into publishing and later Magnolia Media. His brother Bobby Humphreys had become publisher of Fun and Stuff, a free local alternative weekly, in 1992. Bobby died
when he drowned after being caught in an undertow in 1996 near Seagrove Beach, Fla. (Corrected Sept. 7: Bobby Humphreys died en route to the hospital.)
Humphreys stepped in as publisher, a far cry from his day job, attorney at Birmingham law firm Maynard, Cooper and Gale. He says he never took a salary at the paper.
He sold Fun and Stuff to Creative Loafing in 1998 or 1999, with the proceeds going to Bobby’s children. The company asked him to stay on as publisher of the newly renamed Creative Loafing Birmingham, which he did, taking an interest in the corporation in lieu of salary. Humphreys continued working at the law firm the entire time. He says he covered REM’s European tour for Creative Loafing during that period.
Meanwhile, Tina Savas, who founded the Birmingham Business Journal in 1983, started Birmingham Weekly in 1997. (Humphreys says she had approached him about selling Fun and Stuff to her at one time.)
She hired Leishman as general manager in 1999 after he served as vice president of sales and marketing at Yesse Communications, an Indianapolis-based alternative newspaper chain. In 2000, Savas sold the Weekly to the newly formed Magnolia Media.
Leishman was majority investor in Magnolia, along with Creative Loafing and The Strip, a Tuscaloosa monthly arts and entertainment publication. Creative Loafing Birmingham ceased publication with its sales staff joining the Weekly.
The Strip sold its portion of Magnolia to Leishman a year and a half later; Creative Loafing, including Humphreys, maintained 28 percent ownership from the start.
In the years that followed, Humphreys got Creative Loafing’s share of Magnolia Media, as that chain faltered and filed for bankruptcy in 2008. He practiced law in Athens, Ga., then started a wine importing company, Athens Imports, in Vestavia Hills in 2006. He also contributed occasional stories and photos for the Weekly.
According to Humphreys, his move to 100 percent ownership of the Weekly began at a December 2010 board meeting.
Humphreys says that while serving as a board member for Magnolia Media, he asked Leishman about his devoting too many salespeople to the Weekly Card and not enough to ad sales. It was clear from Leishman’s answers, according to Humphreys, that they saw two different paths for the newspaper.
In March, Humphreys incorporated Birmingham Communications. In June, he became publisher.
Weekly Card conflict
The Weekly Card program had not only brought money to the newspaper in its 6 years, but also a sizable number of headaches.
Leishman started the Weekly Card in 2005 as a way to convert restaurant and retail trade to cash. A local restaurant could pay $1,000 in store credit for print ads. Publications could use that trade to feed staffers or entertain clients, but it can be challenging for publishers to eat up that much trade.
Instead, the Weekly Card program converted that store credit to cash by selling memberships. A reader could sign up for a one-time fee of $24.95. Then, the cardholder could add cash to his account and receive a 40 percent discount at the participating restaurant. A Weekly Card member investing $84.95 — the $24.95 fee plus $60 deposit — could reap $100 of dining.
In essence, Leishman was able to do what other publishers had not been able to figure out: Monetize advertising trades with merchants.
One drawback of the program was an apparent lack of inventory control. Several participating restaurants — including Saw’s BBQ in Homewood and Cantina in Lakeview — stopped accepting the Weekly Card for various periods without warning in an effort to reign in too many diners cashing in their 40 percent discounts. Whitmire says that without inventory control, it was “a disaster waiting to happen.” (Efforts to reach the owner of Saw’s BBQ were unsuccessful; the owner of Cantina, Guillermo Castro, died July 18.)
Whitmire added that the Weekly was getting the raw end of the deal. For example, a Weekly Card merchant would get the $7,500 ad straight off the rate card, but when cardholders tried to redeem discounts with that store and couldn’t, they would turn their ire to the newspaper.
“It was a deal from hell,” Whitmire says.
Leishman licensed the program to other newspapers across the country: CityBeat (Cincinnati), the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press and the Boise (Idaho) Weekly. Publisher Sally Freeman, who signed up Boise’s newspaper in 2009, says it’s been a success in her market.
“We have 1,000 cardholders,” Freeman says. “For the amount of money they’re spending, it’s well liked. We don’t even market it anymore.
“My challenge is having good businesses participating.” Boise Weekly has 26 restaurants and nine retailers in the program.
Freeman added that she would like to develop her own version of the Weekly Card if she can find the time, simply to save on licensing fees.
Humphreys emphasized repeatedly that Birmingham Weekly was no longer in the Weekly Card business and had made disentangling the two businesses a high priority. Currently, eight restaurants and one retailer participate in the local Weekly Card, though as many as 30 merchants had been part of the program.
Leishman writes via email that the Weekly Card program has “always been a revenue generator.”
“All of the Weekly advertising programs were designed to create revenue, and all of the programs included display space along with Web advertising. The core business was inseparable from the Weekly Card business.
“Some advertisers preferred to pay in cash, and some through the Weekly Card program, but the bottom line is that it was all revenue eventually.”
Leishman attributed the drop in Birmingham merchant participants to the economic recession as well as new Groupon-style competitors.
While the focus on the Weekly Card led to the change in owners this summer, a different internal battle eventually led to the exit of the newspaper’s key editorial staff members in 2010.
Blueprint Birmingham Weekly
Whitmire and Brock say their frustration with Leishman and the Weekly reached its peak in the spring of 2009.
Brock says, “We felt at the time that the Weekly was not going to survive without private investment or significant increase in revenue.
“None of us — and I include the Leishmans (Chuck and Lynn, his wife and the Weekly’s business manager) with some reluctance — could survive on the money we were making. When you’re in your 20s, it’s awesome to work for gift cards and bar tabs, but in your 30s, that’s just not tenable.”
When Brock started full-time work at the Weekly in late 2000, she says her annual salary was $19,500 with no benefits. When she left in early 2010, it was just under $26,000 with health insurance, plus a $300 monthly housing stipend. Whitmire says he was paid $18,500 annually with no benefits when starting in 2001; he left in early 2010 with a $27,000 annual salary and a $300 monthly housing stipend, but no other benefits.
Brock, Whitmire and Chuck and Lynn Leishman discussed the company’s situation, moderated by contributing writer Mark Kelly. They hatched a plan to retrofit Birmingham Weekly into a new media company.
Brock and Whitmire wrote out 40 pages of action steps, the Leishmans contributed four pages. Kelly compiled the information into a business plan to use for soliciting investments.
At a summer 2009 board meeting for Magnolia Media, Brock and Whitmire presented the plan to Humphreys, Eason and Leishman.
“All Chuck had to do was come up with accurate financial statements: ‘Here’s what we could achieve if we can get out from under our debts,’” Whitmire says.
When Leishman failed to produce those statements by the end of that year, Whitmire says he became fed up again.
The final blowup occurred, not over the new media plan, but over a December 2009 Weekly cover, Whitmire and Brock say.
Lynn Leishman, left, had planned on the paper’s annual gift guide for the cover, while Brock overruled her by going with Whitmire’s story on the City of Birmingham’s $60 million budget deficit. It was the culmination, Brock says, of a long-simmering battle between the editorial and business sides.
“She wanted something different than what I wanted (for the paper),” Brock says. “I think it was frequently very frustrating that she felt like she had no say in the content of the paper. And for our part, we kinda acted like she had no say.
“My attitude toward Lynn was not that she was the general manager, but that she was the publisher’s wife.”
Brock and Whitmire say that after several contentious rounds of emails across the office, Lynn Leishman quit. She returned to her position as business manager sometime after Whitmire’s exit from the Weekly.
Lynn Leishman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The plan that went unfulfilled at Birmingham Weekly became the blueprint for Weld for Birmingham, which hit the streets Thursday with its debut issue.
Weld’s four co-founders are Brock, Whitmire, Kelly and Heather Milam from real estate magazine publisher Network Communications. The new media company has further siphoned off Weekly writers Courtney Haden, Matt Hooper and Jesse Chambers and syndicated Free Will Astrology columnist Rob Brezsny.
“The most important thing I can say about Weld is the Weekly is irrelevant to Weld,” Brock says. “The capital we raised (came from) an environment where the Weekly existed.
“The Weekly can go on till kingdom come for all I care, and for me and for Kyle, Weld is the next chapter.”
Circulation: BY THE NUMBERS
While its alumni have moved on to compete in the Birmingham media market, the Weekly continues putting out issues each Thursday. Just how many issues depends on who you ask.
In his earlier interview, Humphreys had said the Weekly circulates 20,000 copies, a number the paper has used over the years. At the summer 2009 board meeting where the new media plan was presented, Whitmire says Eason asked Leishman in front of Humphreys about the circulation, and that Leishman had said 10,000.
Circulation is a major factor in determining print advertising rates. Birmingham Weekly does not use a third-party auditing service to determine verified circulation numbers.
Whitmire disputed the Weekly’s 20,000 circulation figure, saying, “That’s total bullshit.
“Circulation had clearly been cut. We didn’t want to know. If you called (the Weekly office) and asked, you’d get a different answer each time: sometimes 20,000, 25,000, 30,000.”
He says that the Weekly circulation was 7,500 papers when he left in January 2010.
Brock says, “Pretty consistently, what we said was the circulation was 20,000. In the last several months that I was at the Weekly, we were actually printing 8,000, or maybe 10,000. It was not 20,000.” She left in March 2010.
Leishman declined to answer questions about the Weekly’s circulation “at the advice of counsel.”
When Humphreys was asked if the Weekly’s current circulation was closer to 7,500 than the 20,000 he first stated, he says, “We have more than doubled the number of copies going out. Your number is not correct.” When asked what the correct number was, Humphreys says, “We have dramatically increased from what was being printed before.”
Signature Offset, which prints both Birmingham Weekly and Weld, refused comment.
Beyond the disputes over circulation, tax problems, printer debts, the Weekly Card program and the direction of the newspaper, Whitmire and Brock allege that the Leishmans entangled personal and business finances. He says the publisher and the business manager racked up “tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt.”
“That’s the reason I left,” Whitmire says. “I saw the gruesome clown car of horrors. I’m shocked it’s still alive.
“I have an obvious motive: We’re now a competitor.”
Neither Chuck Leishman nor Lynn Leishman would comment on this allegation about the Weekly’s finances.
Risks and remembrances
Their Weekly days are behind them, but Brock, Whitmire and Chuck Leishman had some parting thoughts on their time at the paper and on each other.
Brock says, “I think Chuck truly and sincerely believed and wanted the paper to be mine and Kyle’s someday. He saw us as the future of the Weekly. I think he did recognize what we could put into it and what value we brought to him and the business.
“When we left and decided to start Weld, I think that Chuck felt hurt and angry and betrayed.”
When asked about Leishman’s competence as publisher, Whitmire repeats a favorite Latin quote of former Birmingham mayor Bernard Kincaid, “Res ipsa loquitur,” meaning “the thing speaks for itself.”
“It was very frustrating that I thought we were succeeding on the editorial side but didn’t see reciprocation on the business side,” he says.
Brock says, “I think Chuck was an idealist and very personally engaging, very charismatic. He is an excellent sales guy.”
But, she adds, Leishman made some risky hires for the Weekly, including herself. When he offered the editor’s job, she says, “My experience to that point was waiting tables at a sushi bar and doing a lot of freelance about hunting and fishing and home remodeling. I was not qualified to be the editor, but it was something I wanted to do.
“If you want your business to succeed, I’m not certain a 25-year-old girl with not much experience is not necessarily the best hire. How can I say so without being enraged about hiring a barista with a blog?” she says with a laugh, referring to Sam George, the most recent editor.
George, left, responds via email, “Was I a risky hire? Absolutely. Though Glenny’s characterization is at least accurate on the surface, at its height, Bham.fm was more than just me and a blog. It was a dedicated group of people working towards filling a gap in local coverage, and it prepared me well. But I was a relative unknown with no background in print journalism. I think anyone would agree it was risky to put me in charge.
“I was proud of the paper each week, even as it shrunk. It always looked good, and it always had fresh, interesting content. I have literally kept the paper alive by housing it in my basement for three months, a sacrifice I will never be compensated for.
“Sometimes, risk pays off.”
Leishman writes via email, “Birmingham Weekly has been a labor of love for myself and the many talented and dedicated people that have joined in that labor. While being profitable was a necessary goal of the Weekly, it was secondary to the idea that we could make a difference in our community.
“I am proud of the work that we did at the Weekly and hope that the new owners will carry on the ideals that make for a great alternative voice in Birmingham.”
What comes next
Following Leishman’s 12-year tenure at Birmingham Weekly, its third publisher has big plans for the 14-year-old publication sans editor.
“I’m very excited about the content that we can create,” Stephen Humphreys says. “I’m very excited about what we’re going to do in food and cuisine, and some projects that we have coming up, and some of the events we’re planning, too.”
He says his personal interests and business experience in wine and art collecting will be reflected in additional coverage in those areas in the paper. Besides his wine business Athens Imports, Humphreys has also worked in the art world, having exhibited his collection of Cuban artwork and photographs in Birmingham and Athens, Ga.
“We’re an alternative paper. We’re not trying to compete with daily newspapers, beat anyone to the latest scoop,” Humphreys says.
“We’re trying to do thoughtful, sometimes humorous, content.”
One multimedia project he has in mind connects Alabama and Cuba, specifically Havana. Humphreys plans to work with the University of Havana, where he taught law and history. He says it will involve more people and include text, photos, audio and video on the history and ties to both locales.
Other topics could also expand to audio and video on the website, even radio and television, according to Humphreys. He says he has taped a pilot for a Birmingham Weekly food and wine show for WERC (105.5 FM).
Humphreys adds that the company has the equipment to do a TV show, and has been experimenting with pilots.
“We can break the news (on the website) if we want to, but I don’t think we can focus our resources on trying to do that all the time.”
He plans on expanding the editorial content through growing the business side, having brought in two account executives, including a Clear Channel veteran, to replace salespeople lost through attrition.
Beyond that, he even has plans for the new Avondale office, including art exhibits and bands playing in an intimate setting.
“For me, it’s a continuation of my brother’s business — that has been my No. 1 consideration,” Humphreys says.
For Birmingham Weekly, the next chapter appears to be far removed from its rabble-rousing, tumultuous heyday.
Wade Kwon is a co-founder of Media of Birmingham and a Birmingham journalist for 24 years.