Truth in advertising? QB’s local media scene Part 1

“What do you know about this slick new magazine?” one of our readers asked a few weeks ago. “I was talking to someone in a local group who was thinking of advertising in it.” That question prompted us to take a closer look at QB’s burgeoning media scene. We found a few things that don’t quite add up, including a strange “merger” with a phantom organization.

Until recently, Black Press arguably enjoyed a virtual monopoly on local news (and print advertising), publishing most of the print and glossy publications available in Qualicum Beach, and other communities across the Island. Black Press owns commercial media outlets across western Canada and in the United States.

Suddenly though, the QB media scene has become fairly crowded.

Second Opinion QB launched on April 14, 2020 to provide a local, independent, not-for-profit news media alternative to PQB News, owned by Black Press. In our introductory emails to prospective readers, we described Second Opinion QB as “a community news website devoted to stories of interest and importance to the people who live and work in, and visit, Qualicum Beach.”

Three months later, in July 2020, Mid-Island Independent News arrived on the scene. Imitation is the best form of flattery we joked, when people asked us what we thought of the “competition.” Then, on September 21, 2020, Mid-Island Independent News announced that they had “merged with Oceanside News.” And, in October 2020, a new monthly glossy print publication called Neighbours of Qualicum Beach appeared in town, published by an American company, Best Version Media.

Whew! That’s a lot of local media start-up activity for one small town in a six-month period, especially during a pandemic. What’s going on? Normally, such a growth spurt in any business sector is good news for a community, right? Well, perhaps. A closer look at these media ventures raises some questions, if not concerns. Who and what are behind these new media ventures? You may be surprised.

Mid-Island Independent News

First, let’s look at how Mid Island Independent News (MIIN) described themselves on their website and Facebook page.

  • “We (Tyler Hay and Kevin Forsyth) founded Mid Island Independent news after graduating together with a diploma in digital journalism and being thrust into a desolate media job market because of COVID-19.
  • “We strive to tell local stories that are both interesting and important to our readers.”
  • “Mid Island Independent News is a new start up project that aims to keep mid island residents informed about their own communities and broader region through in-depth journalism.”
  • “We dig into the overlooked and under covered stories that matter to mid island residents.”
  • “Tyler has a background in photography. Throughout college, he worked as a professional sports photographer.”
  •  “Mid Island News and the people running it are new to the media landscape.”
  • Run by trained journalists, Mid Island Independent is committed to upholding the highest standard of journalistic integrity. We also are committed to finding, and reporting on, any issues and figures that can impact our readers.”

Lots to chew on here, for example the seemingly contradictory statements about being “trained journalists” juxtaposed with being “new to the media landscape” despite Tyler Hay apparently having worked in the media for several years. Another red flag was the surprisingly mediocre design of MIIN’s website, especially given their statement that they’d just graduated from a course in “digital journalism.”

Most notably though, when journalists state their credentials, they proudly identify where they obtained their credentials, but Hay and Forsyth provided only vague statements. An editor would have a field day with their punctuation, grammar, spelling and odd use of language (e.g. “figures that can impact our readers”?). We could go on about why we didn’t quite believe their claims about being “trained journalists,” but that might be professional nitpicking.

Oceanside News — a mystery wrapped in an enigma

On September 21, 2020, MIIN informed readers, “Our team at Mid Island Independent is excited to announce our merging with Oceanside News.” The statement included this puzzling explanation for “merging” with Oceanside News (ON):

“This will allow us to focus more time on researching and writing stories for our community — you can expect the same in-depth content you found on Mid Island Independent, in addition to daily news coverage. With this new platform, we will be able to upload with more consistency and have more time to seek out and research stories. The partnership will give us more room to grow as journalists and as a publication. 

Imagine our surprise, when just a week later, on September 30, Second Opinion QB received the following email from Kevin Forsyth, Oceanside News “reporter/editor:”

I was reading the Second Opinion piece about 263 Buller Road and was hoping to learn more. Would I be able to get in touch with the article’s author, Gil Sampson? I’m thinking about writing an article about it for Oceanside News. I can be reached at the above email address or at 250 22X.XXXX.”

So much for MIIN / ON’s stated editorial policy that they “aim to provide an outlet for unheard and under-represented voices … of stories that would go untold without us.” So much for their “partnership” with Oceanside News helping them to grow their journalism skills. More nitpicking? Perhaps… until we dug a little deeper.

The “merger” that wasn’t?

Two things immediately came to mind when reading MIIN’s “merger” announcement.

We could find no record of any website, social media account or organization called Oceanside News having existed prior to the “merger” announcement from Mid Island Independent News on September 21, 2020.

First, merger announcements typically introduce the names of key people in the merging organizations. However, not a single person’s name was mentioned in the MIIN / ON merger announcement, just one vague reference to “the team.” This is highly unusual for a merger announcement, if not unheard-of.

Second, and most telling, we could find no record of any website, social media account or organization related to Vancouver Island called Oceanside News that existed prior to MIIN’s September 21st announcement of a merger with this phantom organization.

Scouring the internet for website activity, even ones that were deleted years ago, is quite easy these days. There appears to be no record of any website called Oceanside News. Nor could we find any record of any business or organization called Oceanside News. The URL oceansidenews.ca was created in June 2015 and appears to have been owned by someone in the United States. That URL has been inactive since it was registered over five years ago — until September 2020 when it was used, for the first time, as the URL for MIIN’s new “partner,” Oceanside News. It may well have been that MIIN bought this dormant URL. Purchasing dormant URLs is legitimate, but claiming to merge with a business that has never existed is not.

So, who’s really behind Oceanside News? Was there an honest-to-goodness merger with another established, actual organization, or did MIIN’s two “trained journalists” just decide to rename their venture? If it’s the latter, why falsely portray this as a merger with a non-existent organization? Did Hay and Forsyth decide to change the name of their “venture” from Mid Island Independent News to a name that many QB residents might associate with, or believe to be affiliated with, the former Oceanside Star newspaper? Many locals recall the Oceanside Star, a competitor of PQB News. The Star was bought out in March 2015 and closed down by Black Press, the owner of PQB News. Name recognition aside, that still wouldn’t explain why MIIN would decide to claim a merger with a phantom organization.

That’s one lucrative advertising account!

Another red flag that we noted about Oceanside News is the lack of any identifiable source of revenue. By their own admission, Tyler Hay and Kevin Forsyth began MIIN because they were “thrust into a desolate media job market because of COVID-19.” Unlike Second Opinion QB that operates as a not-for-profit, MIIN / ON are commercial businesses that accept paid advertisements. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the business you’re in — except for one thing. In the six months that MIIN / ON have been in business, they have only had one advertisement.

One ad in six months? How is their business surviving on that? Is there someone or something else supporting Oceanside News behind the scenes?

What was that ad? It was an election ad for Michelle Stillwell, featuring a testimonial from Deborah Gray, former federal Reform Party / Conservative MP. The ad ran during the virtual all-candidates meeting that the two “trained journalists” at Oceanside News hosted prior to the October 2020 provincial election. Surely Hay and Forsyth can’t live on the revenue generated by one advertiser, you ask? Well, perhaps. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our look at the local media scene in the next issue of Second Opinion QB.

The “slick magazine” may not be all it’s advertised to be either

Meanwhile, what about Neighbours of Qualicum Beach, the “slick new magazine” that one of our readers asked us about a few weeks ago? The Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce describes this magazine as “a new community publication that connects businesses to local residents in our area.” It’s published by Best Version Media, an American company based in Wisconsin. Neighbours of Qualicum Beach (NOQB) is more of a fledgling template than an actual, fully realized magazine at this time, having published only two issues, in October and November 2020. We note that many of the ads in NOQB are from the same advertisers seen in PQB News and other Black Media publications. That in itself isn’t a problem, but it is curious.

However, two fairly serious red flags came to light when we did a brief review of NOQB and their publisher:

  • Best Version Media (BVM) boasts that it has many publications in its roster but, oddly, only a few publications are actually named on their website. In other instances, some magazines that are presumably in their roster don’t seem to exist. For example, a photo of one magazine, The Bays -– Private Seaside Living, is featured prominently on the BVM website’s home page. However, there is no link to the actual publication, and an online search shows no record of this magazine existing in any form, digital or print. A testimonial video running on BVM’s website features various people claiming to be owners, publishers or editors of magazines published by BVM, all of whom profess great satisfaction with BVM. Oddly though, none of the people interviewed in this BVM promotional video gave the name their magazines. For a business fueled by advertising, that’s very unusual. This could indicate that the people in the video are actors, not real people who publish real magazines.
  • The second, and more alarming, red flag is that the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau lists many complaints about Best Version Media. A review of these detailed complaints alleging serious wrongdoing might give prospective advertisers and/or businesss partners pause. Many of the advertisers in Neighbours of Qualicum Beach are also members of the QB Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber may wish to alert their members to the questionable record of Best Version Media.

In our next issue, we will explore further developments in QB’s growing local media scene, and examine some possible reasons for the flurry of local media start-ups over the last six months in and around Qualicum Beach.