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The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit boasts 19 corners over 2.3km of track.

Did Black Press papers quit covering racetrack noise because of cancelled advertisements? You decide

Investigation into Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit noise allegations reveals ads halted just as conflict heated up.

For months, The Discourse has been digging into allegations that Black Press newspapers on Vancouver Island, B.C., aren’t publishing balanced stories about the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC).

VIMC, a self-described “motorsports playground where performance driving enthusiasts, friends and businesses come together,” sits on a 19-hectare resort outside of Duncan, B.C. Residents living near the track have objected to the noise from the track since its launch, and even filed a lawsuit against the company and the Municipality of North Cowichan. They also allege that the local Black Press paper, the Cowichan Valley Citizen, is not reporting their side of the story to avoid upsetting an advertiser.

The track is owned by a business group, the GAIN Group, which owns more than a dozen car dealerships on the island. GAIN regularly advertises with Black Press, which owns more than a dozen publications on Vancouver Island alone.

Andrew Holota, editorial director of Black Press Media B.C., denies that advertising is influencing content. “GAIN never asked for editorial consideration, much less ever threatened a boycott or implemented any change because of coverage,” he wrote in an email. “That absolutely did not occur.”

But residents are convinced that advertising pressure is impacting content. So what’s the truth? The Discourse has investigated this extensively. We have audited two years of the Cowichan Valley Citizen, Saanich News and the Nanaimo News Bulletin — all of which are owned by Black Press — in an effort to determine if there were any gaps in GAIN dealership advertising.

Our investigation reveals one common factor for each of the print editions of these papers is that from March 21 to July 11, 2017, there were no GAIN ads. This was confirmed by the initial search and verified by a researcher for The Discourse who reviewed each edition from this period individually.

So why did GAIN ads disappear for almost four months?

Representatives from GAIN did not respond to requests for comment. Holota of Black Press said in an interview with The Discourse that there are many possible reasons why GAIN ads in the newspapers might not reflect a previous trend, and he’s not privy to why, specifically, there were no ads during that period. He advised caution in drawing any inference between the advertising trends in the papers and editorial coverage.

But the timing of the missing ads lines up with key events in this story. This timeline details those key events, the coverage since VIMC opened, and when gaps in advertising occurred in an attempt to get to the bottom of what has happened. It was completed as part of a feature story, which can be found here.

December 2014:

Reporters at Black Press’s Cowichan News Leader Pictorial go on strike.

March 2015:

Black Press buys the Cowichan Valley Citizen from Glacier Media in December 2014 and takes over operations in March 2015.

April 2015:

Black Press’s Cowichan News Leader Pictorial closes down, leaving the Cowichan Valley Citizen as the only newspaper covering Duncan and North Cowichan.

April 2016:

Warren Goulding, who owns the Chemainus Valley Courier, launches the monthly Duncan Free Press, which competes with the Citizen.

June 2016:

GAIN opens the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC), located a short drive from downtown Duncan, close to the rural residential neighbourhood of Sahtlam. Though initially described as a “race track” online, the facility is now billed as a private country club for motorsport enthusiasts.

July 28, 2016:

The Citizen reports on noise complaints from neighbours.

Sept. 16, 2016:

The Citizen reports on a Municipality of North Cowichan council decision to ask VIMC to work with them on a joint noise study, to address concerns that a noise study led solely by VIMC might not reflect typical sound levels at the track.

Oct. 18, 2016:

CTV News reports on the noise complaints.

Nov. 10, 2016:

The Citizen reports on VIMC’s noise study, and its efforts to limit noise.

Nov. 25, 2016:

The Citizen reports on the Municipality of North Cowichan’s efforts to broker a meeting between the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association (SNA) and the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit. The story quotes Mariah Wallener with the SNA, who spoke at the council meeting.

March 3, 2017:

The Citizen reports on VIMC’s cooperation with the Municipality of North Cowichan to address the noise concerns.

March 9, 2017:

My Cowichan Valley Now, the online publication of Juice FM, covers the noise issue.

March 11, 2017:

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association alerts local media by email that the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit has developed a former logging road on its property into an off-road track without the permits in place to complete that work, and that the issue will be discussed at the Municipality of North Cowichan council meeting on March 15.

March 14, 2017:

CTV News covers the unpermitted off-road track issue.

March 15, 2017:

At the Municipality of North Cowichan council meeting, councillors express concern that, when council approved the sale of the land for the track, it was under the impression that the track would be a place strictly for people to test drive high-end cars before buying them. Councillors express concern about the noise impacts on the community, and suggest that the current zoning for the facility may not be appropriate. Staff reassure council that it is the municipality’s position that the track is appropriately zoned, and it has received legal advice in support of this position.

Council agreed to formally write VIMC to tell them not to use the off-road track facility until permits are in place. It also agreed to invite the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association to present to council at a public committee of the whole meeting.

March 17, 2017:

Reporter Robert Barron writes about council’s instruction to VIMC that the off-road track not be used until permits are secured. The article appears online on the Cowichan Valley Citizen website, dated March 17, 2017. It does not appear in the March 17 print edition of the paper.

March 21, 2017:

There are no ads for GAIN dealerships in the Nanaimo News Bulletin in the March 21 edition of the paper. None appear again until July 13, 2017.

March 23, 2017:

Isabel Rimmer and Mariah Wallener of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association present to Municipality of North Cowichan mayor and council at a committee of the whole meeting.

The SNA had prepared a report, titled “Approved as a Permitted Use,” which outlined an argument that the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit is illegally zoned under Municipality of North Cowichan bylaws, and should not have been approved for development. The case is supported by documents received by the SNA through freedom of information requests.

The report was emailed to mayor and council the day before the presentation. At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Jon Lefebure advised council to refrain from asking questions or otherwise engaging with the presentation because of the potential legal implications of the material being presented.

The Cowichan Valley Citizen did not write about the report or the meeting, at the time or since. Video from the meeting is available online at the Municipality of North Cowichan website. And the report is available on the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association’s website.

March 2017:

Warren Goulding, publisher of the monthly Chemainus Valley Courier and Duncan Free Press, writes an editorial in the March 2017 edition of the Courier that discusses the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association’s presentation to Municipality of North Cowichan council.

He writes: “Following one of the most cogent presentations I’ve witnessed in council, the mayor and council were silent. No questions. No comments.

They’d been warned by Mayor Jon Lefebure prior to the presentation to be wary of anything they said because there could be serious legal implications … an understatement if ever I’ve heard one. North Cowichan is in a heap of trouble on this issue and where it goes could have significant implications for taxpayers.

Effectively muzzled, the councillors had nothing to ask, no comments to make.”

This article is no longer available online. Goulding sold the Courier to Black Press less than two months later, and online archives only cover the Black Press era.

April 2017:

Reporter Peter Rusland reports on the March 23 SNA presentation to council in the April 2017 edition of the monthly Duncan Free Press. “The exclusive motorsport testing track breaks North Cowichan’s own split-use bylaw, Sahtlam Residents’ Association [sic] members maintained March 23, handing councillors a damning report about the track called Approved As A Permitted Use,” he writes.

The Duncan Free Press shut down the next month, after Goulding sold the Courier to Black Press. Goulding had owned both the Courier and the Duncan Free Press. He took a job with Black Press as publisher of the Courier and the Cowichan Valley Citizen as part of the deal.

The Duncan Free Press archives are not currently available online.

April 13, 2017:

Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit staff and consultants present to Municipality of North Cowichan council, outlining their efforts and plans to address the noise issue.

April 18, 2017:

Don Descoteau, editor of Black Press’s Goldstream Gazette, writes an article published in the Cowichan Valley Citizen about the April 13 presentation to council.

The SNA complained that the coverage was biased. Descoteau had, prior to attending the council meeting, corresponded with Isabel Rimmer of the SNA. He indicated in an email to Rimmer that he had read the “Approved as a Permitted Use” report in full. His article does not mention the report, or any concerns related to the the zoning of the facility.

Rimmer is quoted in the article saying, “We’ve always said that we want a triple-win situation here. There really should be no reason that they can’t operate a business and we can’t live our lives and we’ve always wanted that.”

May 9, 2017:

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association responds to Descoteau’s article in a blog post, titled “For Shame, Cowichan Valley Citizen,” accusing the paper of bias in favour of the motorsport circuit.

SNA directors Rimmer and Wallener had a lengthy interview with Descoteau following the council presentation in which they outlined their concerns with the track’s noise mitigation plan, but these were not reflected in the article, according to the blog post.

“A balanced article would have noted our lack of enthusiasm for the offer [to establish a working group with council and the SNA], the fact that a working group already existed, and may even have questioned why a new group was being proposed, and why now. Instead, it read like a press release straight from the public relations desk at VIMC,” the blog post states.

May 16, 2017:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen reports that Black Press bought the Chemainus Valley Courier from Warren Goulding, and has hired Goulding as the publisher of the Courier and the Cowichan Valley Citizen.

June 5, 2017:

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association files a lawsuit against the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit and the Municipality of North Cowichan alleging that the development was illegally permitted by the municipality and is a nuisance. The argument outlined in the lawsuit mirrors the “Approved as a Permitted Use” report.

June 8, 2017:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen notes the lawsuit in a three-sentence article.

My Cowichan Valley Now, an online news source by Juice FM, also publishes a story about the lawsuit, after an interview with Isabel Rimmer.

July 13, 2017:

Advertisements for GAIN Dealer Group car dealerships return to the Nanaimo News Bulletin for the first time since March 16, 2017. They return to the Cowichan Valley Citizen on July 14. They do not return to Saanich News.

July 18, 2017:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen covers a Porsche launch event at VIMC that attracted hundreds of automotive journalists from around the world.

Members of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association protested the event by standing across the highway from the track, holding signs that read “People Before Porsches,” “Racetrack Too Loud,” and “Democracy Missing in Action,” among others.

Isabel Rimmer of the SNA emailed Citizen publisher Warren Goulding twice asking for coverage of the protests. Rimmer says she received no reply.

The Citizen’s coverage of the Porsche launch does not mention the protesters.

CHEK News also covered the event, including video from the protest and an interview with Rimmer.

July 22, 2017:

The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit applies to the Municipality of North Cowichan to rezone its whole property, including the existing facility and more than 200 acres of undeveloped land behind the current track. The plan is to expand the facility with nearly three kilometres of new track, plus a golf course and new car storage and presentation facility. If the rezoning is successful, the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association’s case that the facility is illegally zoned could no longer be made. As of July 2018, the rezoning process is ongoing.

Aug. 8, 2017: 

The Times Colonist publishes Experts assess sound level at Cowichan motorsport circuit.”

Aug. 11, 2017:

The Citizen publishes an article stating that German sound engineers assessed noise at the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit and found it to be within acceptable limits. It does not mention that the noise study was commissioned and paid for by VIMC. The Citizen did not reach out to the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association for comment. The article is credited to the Citizen, rather than an individual reporter, an unusual practice for articles published in the news section.

Aug. 18, 2017:

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association publishes a blog post describing a conversation that took place on Aug. 14 between SNA president Isabel Rimmer and Warren Goulding, publisher of the Cowichan Valley Citizen, about the Citizen’s coverage of the SNA and the track.

According to Rimmer, Goulding told her that the Citizen would not publish a story about the neighbourhood association’s complaints against the track, would not publish a letter to the editor refuting points made in Citizen coverage of VIMC’s efforts to address the noise issue, and probably would not sell the SNA ad space to tell its side of the story.

Rimmer alleges that Goulding said the reason was that the GAIN Dealer Group, which owns the track and high-end car dealerships in Victoria and Nanaimo, pulled ads from all Black Press newspapers because of coverage of the noise complaints in the Citizen. Black Press owns nearly every newspaper on Vancouver Island except for the Times Colonist in Victoria.

After the publication of the blog post, Goulding reached out to Rimmer in a private Facebook conversation that she shared with The Discourse. “So much for a frank and candid and off the record conversation. Extremely disappointed,” Goulding wrote.

The version of events as told by Rimmer does not line up completely with the evidence from the papers themselves. Rimmer says Goulding told her that the ads were pulled after the Citizen published an article about the track by reporter Robert Barron in November 2016. In fact, the gap in advertising begins shortly after the Citizen published an article about the track by reporter Robert Barron in March 2017.

Furthermore, Rimmer says Goulding told her that the ads had not returned to the papers as of their conversation, which occured on Aug. 14, 2017. In fact, GAIN ads returned to the Nanaimo News Bulletin on July 13, and to the Cowichan Valley Citizen on July 14. Ads for GAIN car dealerships had not returned to Saanich News by August 14.

The only GAIN ads that appear in Saanich News between March 17 and Aug. 14 are for the Vancouver Island Motor Gathering, a charity event hosted by GAIN at the motorsport circuit. Black Press is among the media sponsors of that event. Media sponsorship generally includes the provision of free advertising.

Aug. 20, 2017:

Goulding writes an email to Rimmer clarifying the Cowichan Valley Citizen’s editorial policy regarding coverage of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association:

“I have learned that I was wrong in suggesting we would not publish a letter to the editor from yourself or someone from the SNA. We will be pleased to publish a letter that meets our space requirements. As well, you have our commitment that we will cover this issue in a fair and unbiased manner in the coming weeks. And, yes, we will accept advertising from the SNA as long as it meets our advertising standards. One request, could I respectfully ask you to remove the post that appears on your site.”

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association did not remove the post.

Since Goulding’s email, the Citizen has publicized the motorsport circuit’s charitable donations and community engagement initiatives at least seven times.

A search of the Citizen’s website for the term “motorsport circuit” reveals no news articles that mention noise complaints against the track in news articles from August 2017 onward. Rimmer says the neighbourhood association has not received any interview request or request for comment from the Citizen since that time.

The Citizen did, on April 20, 2018, publish a letter by Rimmer on its website that mentions “the outcry from the community around the invasive noise from this facility.” The letter was not published in the print edition on April 20. The Citizen occasionally publishes letters online that are not published in the print version of the paper.

Oct. 28, 2017:

A blog post by the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association offers video evidence that the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit continued to use the off-road track facility after it had been instructed by the Municipality of North Cowichan not to do so without permits in place.

This was not reported by the Citizen.

Nov. 10, 2017:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen covers a Municipality of North Cowichan meeting that addressed VIMC’s property rezoning application. The article summarizes, in 150 words, council’s decision to refer the application to various stakeholders, including the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association, for feedback.

Nov. 23, 2017:

The Municipality of North Cowichan’s chief administrative officer emails the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association a response to their official complaint against the track for using the off-road track without permits. The letter indicates that the municipality will not take any action against the track because it has voluntarily agreed to not use the off-road track again until permits are in place.

The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association discussed the response in a later blog post.

This was not reported by the Citizen.

Jan. 19, 2018:

The Globe and Mail publishes an article on accusations by a former employee of the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit that she was sexually harassed by a senior staff member at the track. Local outlets CHEK News and Juice FM’s My Cowichan Valley Now published versions of the story. The Cowichan Valley Citizen did not.

April 4, 2018:

Municipality of North Cowichan council addresses complaints of excess noise from the track over the Easter long weekend. Council decides to ask VIMC to provide a public schedule of events. That calendar is now available online.

This was not reported by the Citizen.

April 5, 2017:

Reporter Jacqueline Ronson officially begins her investigation of VIMC for The Discourse as part of the Local News Fellowship program. The motorsport issue was selected after two months of talking to people in the Cowichan Valley about what they see as gaps in media coverage. In an online poll, nearly 40 per cent of respondents asked for an investigation of the motorsport circuit, beating out two other contentious local issues.

April 18, 2018:

Municipality of North Cowichan council discusses VIMC’s community engagement plan regarding its rezoning and expansion plans. Council decides not to participate in the proposed working group until more legwork has been completed.

This was not reported by the Citizen.

April 20, 2018:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen publishes online a letter to the editor by Isabel Rimmer criticizing VIMC’s community engagement plan. The letter does not appear in the April 20 print issue of the paper.

April 22, 2018:

The Cowichan Valley Citizen reports that the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit will host open houses to provide information about its plans to rezone and expand its property.

May 28, 2018:

The Tyee publishes a story about the media coverage of the track.

May 2018:

The Discourse audits two years of the Cowichan Valley Citizen, Saanich News and the Nanaimo News Bulletin — all of which are owned by Black Press — in an effort to determine if there were any gaps in GAIN dealership advertising. There are more than a dozen Black Press publications on Vancouver Island alone, and we did not look at all of them. The Cowichan Valley Citizen was selected for its direct relevance to this story, and the other two were selected because they cover regions where GAIN dealerships exist and generally contain prominent advertising for those dealerships.

The Discourse looked at issues published between May 2016 and May 2018 for each of the three publications and converted them into searchable documents.

A case-sensitive search for the term “GAIN” yielded as many as 40 monthly hits in the Nanaimo News Bulletin and Saanich News, and as many as seven in the Cowichan Valley Citizen. Each hit was checked visually to ensure only unique GAIN ads were counted. The methodology is not perfect; not every GAIN ad returned a hit, so it is possible that some were missed.

But one common factor for each of the print editions of these papers is that from March 21 to July 11, 2017, there were no GAIN ads.

This was confirmed by the initial search and verified by a researcher for The Discourse who reviewed each edition from this period individually.

July 4, 2018:

Andrew Holota, editorial director for Black Press’s B.C. operations, responded to specific allegations revealed through The Discourse’s reporting in an emailed statement:

July 12, 2018:

After months of investigating this issue, The Discourse publishes, “Trust in local news shaken over racetrack controversy in B.C.’s Cowichan Valley.”

What do you think of your local media coverage?

Tell us here:

Jacqueline Ronson was a reporter for Black Press at the Yukon News in Whitehorse from August, 2013, through June, 2015. She left the company on good terms to move to Vancouver Island. The Discourse has a membership-based business model; it does not compete with Black Press for advertising revenue.

This piece was edited by Lindsay Sample with copy editing and fact-checking by Jonathan von Ofenheim and Francesca Fionda. The Discourse’s editor-in-chief is Erin Millar.

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