Could Vancity Buzz ever dethrone the Vancouver Sun?

The prospect isn't as crazy as it sounds, says the director of UBC’s School of Journalism

January 21, 2016

By Trevor Melanson / Photo: Vancouver Public Library

These days, going to the Vancouver Sun’s website is like going through a time portal to 2002. And yet the iconic city paper’s name remains part of our skyline, in bold letters atop the tower at 200 Granville St., like some monument to another era. That era, of course, is the one in which print newspapers were a booming business.

On Tuesday, Postmedia, the company that owns many of Canada’s largest newspapers including the Vancouver Sun and Province, laid off 90 journalists across the country. The Vancouver papers suffered no layoffs, but buyouts are on the way as the Sun and Province must merge their respective newsrooms. This, obviously, has been going on for years—buyouts, cut backs—as the two papers increasingly become shells of their former selves.

And then there’s Vancity Buzz, a news website famous for two things: being popular and being, well, not very serious. (At the time I’m writing this, Vancity Buzz is leading its homepage with a story about a TransLink bus driver who sort of looks like Walter White.) And yet there’s no denying that Vancity Buzz has grown rapidly. It has, for example, 270,000 Facebook followers compared to just 80,000 for the Sun, and its editorial staff has grown to 12 people. Its trajectory, in short, is the opposite of the Sun’s.

But could Vancity Buzz really dethrone a 104-year-old newspaper?

Alfred Hermida, the director of UBC’s School of Journalism and a veteran of BBC (where he was a founding editor of its news website in 1997), says he often reminds his students that “there’s nothing normal about the newspaper. It’s not the natural state of journalism. It just so happened that at one particular time, the newspaper was a great product. It had everything you needed to know.” That, of course, was before the Internet. Now Hermida says he gets most of his news on his phone—and doesn’t miss how things used to be. “Reading a broadsheet on the subway in London is like the worst experience ever.” He says he still reads news from the same stalwarts of journalism—the New York Times and the Guardian, for example—but those are organizations that have invested heavily in their online capacity, and it shows. “When I look at the Vancouver Sun website, it always pains me to use it. Have they not heard of WordPress?”

Whether they have or not, it’s clear that Vancouver’s two biggest papers are in a tough spot. At a time when Postmedia needs to be investing online, the company is rapidly losing ad revenue as advertisers look elsewhere (Google and Facebook, most notably). To make matters much, much worse, Postmedia is also saddled with $650 million in high-interest debt that it has to service. But if revenue keeps declining, and it almost certainly will, and the Sun and Province keep losing ground in the battle for eyeballs against startups like Vancity Buzz, well, how does this end? Hermida says that, before the Internet, the big papers were the only game in town, but “that protection from competition has completely disappeared. The reality is now it’s a much more competitive market place, not just for advertising but also for attention.”

But what of the journalism? Surely, Vancouver requires good and proper reporting, right? Well, it does—but Hermida warns against assuming that startups like Vancity Buzz automatically can’t do it. “At first, they don’t look much like competition. You think, oh, they’re not really serious, they’re not really doing the news, they’re not really competitive about this. They’re offering what might be considered an inferior product, but actually what they’re doing is meeting the needs of an audience that didn’t go for what you’re offering because they don’t like print. They prefer to get their news on mobile or online.”

And here’s the kicker: as the startup develops, the quality improves, Hermida says. “The product gets better and better and better. And there’s a tipping point, and essentially they’re the one growing and the incumbent is the one dying. This disruption model is repeated across industries,” he says. “Most people tend to think of BuzzFeed as listicles and cats doing sit-ups, and yes, they do all of that, but they also do news and increasingly have been investing in news.”

As for the Sun and Province, Hermida says Postmedia will need to invest in them if they’re to survive. “You still have an audience that wants a certain product, but somebody else is taking away your newer audience, and then what happens—and there are studies that show this—is that as you cut resources, you affect the quality of your journalism. It gets worse, fewer people use it, and you end up in this death spiral. Meanwhile, your competition is investing, improving their product, and getting more of an audience.”

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