The CEO of Attractions Ontario says the Star’s field trip guide, which recently won an award, bears a number of similarities to theirs — a claim the Star disputes.
By H.G. Watson, Managing Editor
This year, the Toronto Star won a Great Idea Award from News Media Canada for a field trip guide it had launched in 2016. The award showcases, “the most creative and innovative examples of newspaper marketing and promotion from newspapers across the country.”
One problem: Troy Young, the CEO of Attractions Ontario, a non-profit association that represents Ontario’s tourism destinations said that the Toronto Star’s guide bears a number of similarities to a field trip guide Attractions Ontario has produced for the last 12 years. He says News Media Canada should rescind the Star’s award because he does not believe the Star’s field trip guide should be awarded for innovation — but executives at the Toronto Star say that Young has made untrue statements about the Star’s field trip guide and caused damage to the Star’s business reputation.
Young, who has been the CEO of Attractions Ontario since 2004, says any credit for innovation should go to his non-profit. The Attractions Ontario Field Trip Planner was developed in 2005, and has been refined every year since. While originally a print product, it is now sent electronically to 53 Ontario school boards who email it on to their teachers. (About 5,000 copies are still printed). The planner provides information about field trips at tourist destinations across the province. It is a revenue-generating tool for Attractions Ontario.
Last year, The Toronto Star’s Classroom Connections division, which creates educational products, produced the Ontario Field Trip Guide. It too provides information about field trips across Ontario. “Our guide was the product of a significant amount of time effort and resources by the Star team,” said Bob Hepburn, a Toronto Star spokesperson, who said that part of the production of the guide was outsourced. “When you do comparisons of his planner and the Star guide, it shows that much of the content is different, including the choice of attractions to include.” He said the categories of information are not unique to the Attractions Ontario guide, and are featured in other similar guides.
The Toronto Star’s guide does contain a number of similarities to recent iterations of the Attractions Ontario guide. (Earlier versions of the Attractions Ontario guide have a different visual style than those produced in the last four years).
Both have an index that sorts attractions by topics students can learn about, whether there is service in French, if food is available and if the venue is wheelchair accessible.
The destination pages contain much of the same information, like group sizes and length of tours, and have similar design elements.
The guides do have some differing destinations. The Toronto Star guide includes the Art Gallery of Ontario, while the Attractions Ontario does not, for example. And other provincial field trip planners do have some similar information. An online field trip planner for British Columbia also includes information such as whether services are available in French and what grades the destination is suitable for.
Young said that had the Star only made a similar guide, he might not have cared. “I’m not concerned that they have a competing product,” he said, noting they were aware that the Star had produced their own guide last year. “It just goes to show that we’ve developed a really good piece and people want to copy it.”
What he did not like was that the Star won an award for innovation, and is now promoting that fact as it sells the 2017-2018 version of the guide. In an email provided to J-Source by Young, a Consumer Media Solutions salesperson representing the Toronto Star Classroom Connection noted that the Star had won the Great Idea Award in a sales pitch. “I do resent presenting it as their innovation and using that claim in their current sales tactic,” Young said.
Hepburn said the Star “strongly” disagrees with assertions Young has made regarding the Great Ideas Award. “The award was based on a number of criteria including not only the concept, but also the implementation; effective use of the print medium; and results that were obtained including financial results,” he said. “In our submission for that award there was no claim that the Star guide was a unique publication in Ontario. Our emphasis was on the successful implementation of that concept.”
“We’re proud that we won that award from News Media Canada,” he added.
Young has since contacted Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor and John Hinds, the CEO of News Media Canada to make them aware of his allegations. Hinds told J-Source in an email that News Media Canada is looking into the issue.
Young also contacted several advertisers to make them aware of his allegations. In response to Young’s letter to advertisers, Star Media Group’s chief operating officer, Sandy MacLeod, sent Young a letter stating that his actions had impugned the Star’s business ethics and damaged the Star’s reputation, and that his assertion that Star had claimed credit for the field trip guide is “entirely false.” MacLeod also asked for the names of the advertisers Young sent his email to, which Young has declined to do for proprietary reasons. He told J-Source in a follow-up email that he believes the Star is trying to intimidate him, and Attractions Ontario has since retained legal counsel.
Young says he wants is for the Star’s Great Ideas Award to be rescinded. He points out that any allegation of plagiarism would be unacceptable should one of their reporters be involved. “They should be held to the same account that their journalists are,” he said.
Editor’s note, May 31, 6:23 p.m.: A previous version of this story referred in one instance to the News Media Council instead of to News Media Canada. We apologize for the error.