MTLBlog has quickly become one of the most mocked sites in Canada. Its owners have been accused of stealing photos and aggregating other people's content with little value added, they’ve sent takedown letters trying to stifle other sites that poke fun at them, they post blatantly false headlines, they charge placement fees for basic event coverage, and they’ve posted a semi-literate self-aggrandizing "love letter" to Montreal, containing the immortal line "hate us, and we rebuttal".
Indeed, some hate MTLBlog. But many read it. The site claims to have received 2.8 million uniques in June. It's making money, and it may be the only new media website in Canada that's doing it right, at least on the business side.
Since the backlash, they've refused to give interviews. I managed to convince the company co-founder, Chuck Lapointe, to give his side of the story. Here's how that went.
At their office on St-Laurent boulevard, a couple of unpaid interns are sharing a pizza to celebrate their last day at MTLBlog. Between the office walls decorated with stickers, graffiti and mural paintings, and the fake grass on part of the floor, it feels like a strange mix between a Silicon Valley startup and VICE.
Chuck Lapointe and Josh McRae started the website in 2012. At first it was only about Montreal events, but it quickly evolved into anything Montreal related.
On its website, MTLBlog boasts it has “a team of over 10 journalists”, but in fact they have two paid writers, three to four unpaid contributors plus the occasional intern.
Local photographers recently saw their work appearing on MTLBlog without permission, accreditation or payment, prompting the creation of Stop MTLblog, a blog detailing articles where pictures were used without authorization.
The MTLBlog team has since apologized and Lapointe now dismisses the people at StopMTLblog as “jealous competitors”.
“Sometimes we didn’t credit (the pictures used),” he said, “that was a big mistake.”
He claims to have ceased the practice, saying the website won’t repeat those mistakes.
The age of “3-second attention span”
MTLBlog posts are formatted to draw a new generation of readers, explains Lapointe, as the company target the 18 to 34 year-old demographic.
“Our goal is to attract people who are on their phone all day long and who have a 3-second attention span,” he said. “People are so bombarded with (pictures) of dogs, cats, girls in bikinis in Cuba that when you’re trying to reach those people, how do you do it without a sensationalistic title and a sexy image ?”
When asked about the heavy reliance on aggregated content, Lapointe points out that his company doesn’t have the same manpower as traditional media ,but insists MTLBlog always link back to the original article.
“If we didn’t write (those stories), all the people aged 18 to 34 wouldn’t even read (the originals),” he says.
Taking the Montreal Gazette as an example, he says the paper was designed for print and the website doesn’t attract young readers.
“There are 18 paragraphs of text, no images. It’s boring.”
He does plan to hire more writers as the company grows, and says the website is already doing some original reporting, mentioning a story from last March 2014, where an anglophone Montrealer was allegedly barred from voting during the provincial election.
Lapointe sees MTLBlog as a “mixed” media-brand. The young company has been exploring native advertising, with resulting stories stamped “sponsored content” on the site.
The success of MTLBlog is merited, says Lapointe.
Both he and his business partner Josh McRae have invested all their time and savings into it, he says. He says McRae spends up to 14 hours a day on social media, chatting, posting and interacting with the community.
It’s another defining characteristic of this new model : 75% of MTLBlog’s traffic comes through Facebook.
Lapointe says he wants to give back to the community by writing positive articles that make people want to go out.
“You’ll never see us write a negative review of a restaurant, ever ever ever,” insists Lapointe.
Ultimately, his goal is to “make Montreal great.”
In June, MTLBlog’s most read article was “Old $2 Bills Are Now Worth $20, 000,” seen by 1.8 million unique visitors.
But beyond the headline, the reader learns that only one rare bill has been auctioned for $10,000, and most old $2 bills are worth little more than $2 .
It’s click-bait headlines like this that prompted three Montrealers to start a parody website, BlogMTL.
“We decided to make a few blog articles to parody some of the more poorly-researched, sensationalistic and content-light articles and threw them up on a Wordpress site,” explained one of BlogMTL’s creators. .
They aren’t revealing their identity, especially since Lapointe emailed StopMTLBlog’s hosting company, claiming the website was defaming his company and accused them of copyright infringement.
StopMTLBlog has since switched to a new hosting company.
The people behind BlogMTL also changed their name to Sooo MTL, after Lapointe flagged one of their Facebook posts as “copyright infringement”. Lapointe says he won’t do anything to Sooo MTL as long as the website remains a parody.
One of BlogMTL's anonymous creators argues that the detractors his blog reaches are not among MTLBlog's audience in the first place. He says MTLBlog's content is symptomatic of a bigger problem on the Internet.
“If anything, our aim is to sensitize readers to look more closely at clickbait and not share false/stolen information just because they like bacon or Osheaga," he said.