Vancity Buzz is trying to outrun its very recent past.
It’s a wildly popular Vancouver news and current events site, and unlike many other media outlets in the country, it’s growing. While other news organizations face round after round of layoffs, Vancity Buzz added a dozen employees in the last year and they’re planning to expand more in the coming months.
Last December it had just three employees after a period of “hockey-stick” revenue growth on the back of what is now eight million monthly views, according to the site’s editor-in-chief and partner Farhan Mohamed. He declined to discuss specific numbers, but said they are now bringing in six figures a month in revenue through ads and sponsored content.
But it has been a bumpy road. The young organization has had a lifetime’s worth of embarrassments in its seven-year run, from stolen articles and photos to unethical stories and errors, and has earned itself a bad reputation among Vancouver media. The very mention of the publication – one of the few growing media enterprises in the city – elicits shudders and sneers of contempt from local journalists.
But Mohamed says it’s not the same Vancity Buzz that it was a few months ago.
“We want to be better,” he says, “We’re learning from every public misstep, but we’re doing so privately.”
Recently, Vancity Buzz has been doing more original reporting. A Syrup Trap hoax website for a fake condo tower (a phony plan to gut an art gallery and adapt it into luxury condos) was caught by one of its reporters, who called the supposed developer, a baffled Australian firm that had never heard of the plan.
But the site has been accused countless times of stealing stories from other outlets. Just a month ago Vancity Buzz was accused of stealing content, this time from the local Burnaby Now newspaper.
Lauren Sundstrom’s story on Vancity Buzz, Former Burnaby RCMP officer going to jail for stealing cocaine, bore a striking resemblance to Cornelia Naylor’s Burnaby Now story, Former Burnaby RCMP special constable jailed for cocaine theft. So much of a resemblance, in fact, that it would get you thrown out of most universities: it was a 45 per cent match.
“It was a total rewrite,” says Jennifer Moreau, a reporter at Burnaby Now. “It was so obvious that this woman hadn’t done any of her own work.”
Sundstrom defended her work on Twitter, saying, “The only thing that was ‘copied’ were direct quotes. Otherwise it was re-written.”
@nickwellsy The only thing that was “copied” were direct quotes. Otherwise it was re-written.
— Lauren Sundstrom (@LaurenGSun) August 20, 2015
The article did link back to the original, but entire sentences were lifted — a serious transgression in the world of journalism and copyright law.
“One of the wrong ideas that [aggregators] throw around is that there’s no copyright in an idea, in information,” says media lawyer David Sutherland. “But there’s a lot more to writing a story than the information in it.”
Links back are a weak defense to a charge of copyright violation, and Sutherland says that the real test in these cases is whether those links are often clicked. If not, the aggregator is benefiting from the original source’s material while the creator is missing out.
Even if a journalist is second to a story, standard practice is to either come up with a new angle or at least re-interview the sources.
“There’s a code among journalists,” says Moreau. “You don’t rip each other off. Vancity Buzz doesn’t seem to get that. Their business model is not wholly but partly based on that, ripping off other peoples’ stories.”
This was not a unique situation. Again and again, Vancity Buzz has been accused of plagiarism. Mohamed says it goes both ways, though, pointing to the fake condo tower story. Scott Brown’s article on the Vancouver Sun’s blog was similar to the one that had appeared earlier on Vancity Buzz.
The key difference is that Brown’s story didn’t use any of Vancity Buzz’s original reporting or phrasing; the only similarities were quotes taken from the website that both stories were reporting on, and the fact that both stories decided the website was fake – albeit with more reporting in the original, Vancity Buzz version.
“It’s only us that get that crap,” says Lindsay William-Ross, a senior editor at Vancity Buzz, referring to the backlash that accompanies the instances of the site being caught taking others’ stories.
Lifting articles is just one way Vancity Buzz flies in the face of standard journalism practice.
Two weeks ago a story called “Where to hook up at UBC” (and a similar one about Simon Fraser University) earned its own backlash for its weak nod to consent and especially problematic advocacy for having sex in public places.
A 2015 list of “11 most eligible bachelors in Vancouver 2015” included a man previously found guilty of shady dealings in real estate while working without a license, and accused of stealing thousands of dollars from the UBC student’s union. The list was quickly amended to the 10 most eligible bachelors.
Although the site’s sponsored content has been criticized on many occasions, Mohamed maintains that their policies on paid articles are ethically sound. But a September 28 advertorial crossed the line for some. The article, although clearly labeled as being “Presented by Wegroup Properties”, is about how great condo living can be. It includes gems like “If you want the Vancouver lifestyle, you have to pay for it,” and has quotes calling Vancouverites “spoiled” for being concerned about affordable housing. Since the site commonly reports on housing in the city, having a paid advertorial that clearly takes one side of the issue could be seen as creating a conflict of interest.
The site has also been accused of censoring comments, although Mohamed insists the removal of critical comments was done by an automatic filter.
Despite the ongoing breaches, Mohamed points to the progress the site has made as an example for other Vancouver media to follow. They have recently begun reporting more in the field as they have added more trained journalists to the roster.
“We think the industry in this city, and the people working in this city, should be better,” he says. “It’s an evolving industry, and we’re carving out a piece of it.”
Vancity Buzz is currently hiring an online editor; they’re looking for someone with a “thorough understanding of web research and copyright issues.”