Vegan Lifestyle Magazine: 'We Screwed Up'

VegNews is a lifestyle magazine dedicated to vegan living. The magazine came under fire when it was revealed that some of the stock photos used in the magazine were not meat free or dairy free. Michele Norris speaks with Joseph Connelly, publisher of VegNews, about the fallout — and what their readers can expect to see from VegNews moving forward.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

VegNews is a popular publication for vegan living. The magazine is chock full of recipes like vegan spareribs and savory stews that hue to the principles of vegan life: no meat, no dairy, no eggs and, for many people, no exceptions.

But recently, the readers of Veg News saw a letter that began with three words: We screwed up. Apparently the magazine was using royalty-free stock photos to accompany their food features. So the succulent vegan barbeque ribs portrayed on the pages were actually ribs that had come from a pig or a cow. The veganized stew was actually a thick chicken soup.

Joseph Connelly is the publisher of VegNews magazine, and he joins us now. Mr. Connelly, who pointed out this problem?

Mr. JOSEPH CONNELLY: (Publisher, VegNews): It was an anonymous blogger who fashions herself to doing investigative work, and she posted a blog entry about this, I think, last Wednesday night.

NORRIS: How did you get the news?

Mr. CONNELLY: Originally, somebody emailed me that night and I have to admit I didn't think it was that serious. I thought it was almost like a late April Fool's joke.

NORRIS: When you first heard about this, as you say, you thought it was a joke. Did you have any idea that this would turn into sort of a national story?

Mr. CONNELLY: Not any idea. I'm still in disbelief.

NORRIS: Why were you using stock photos?

Mr. CONNELLY: The stock - let me state that the stock photos is a common practice in all publishing. I mean, a stock photo that looks like whipped cream is probably shaving cream. A stock photo that looks like ice cream is probably Play-Doh.

Now, again, that doesn't exonerate what we did, which is why we apologized yesterday, but it does just go to show you that there's always two sides to a story. Oddly enough, 50 years ago, my mother worked for McCall's magazine as a food stylist, and she tells me stories about them using hairspray and undercooking things to make them look better.

So, I mean, this is not new. It's just that we obviously have to elevate our standards and change our policy, and that's what we're going to do looking forward.

NORRIS: When you talk about standards and just in reading the comments stream on the website that actually broke the story, one of the things that people seem to be very upset about is a particular feature that we mentioned, the recipe for the vegan barbeque ribs.

And they say it's hard to buy your explanation that this might have been a mistake because it looks like these ribs had been PhotoShopped, that someone had removed the bones to make them look more vegan.

Mr. CONNELLY: That is the one instance that anything like that's happened. It happened, I think, two years ago. The photo, it was an 11th-hour decision, when we couldn't get a photo, and we made a mistake. We admitted it, we should not have PhotoShopped the ribs out of those seitan steaks, which is what we were trying to portray, which is - the ribs are made of seitan.

NORRIS: And for our listeners who might not be familiar with seitan, seitan is?

Mr. CONNELLY: Seitan is a meat analog made out of wheat protein, and it mimics the texture of meat, and you spice it up, and you get some really tasty ribs out of it without the bone.

NORRIS: A simple question: Why don't you take your own photos? I mean, there are lots of blogs, some run by people who take photos in their home kitchens, and they post them, and they look pretty good.

Mr. CONNELLY: VegNews is a publication that gets by on a very small staff with a very small budget, and it's simply a matter of - it was a matter at the time of cutting corners where we felt we had to cut corners.

We absolutely do not have the ability to food-style. So that's why we've put a call out to our supporters, and we're going to assemble a stock photo site of vegan images as part of this and hopefully make them available not just for our use but for, you know, NPR's use if they'd like to - you know, if you vegan burger...

NORRIS: Good to know.

Mr. CONNELLY: Yeah, you'll be able to get a vegan burger, a photo of a vegan burger. Or you can get a vegan burger and eat one, save a cow.

NORRIS: Joseph Connelly is the publisher of VegNews magazine. He joined us from San Francisco via Skype. Mr. Connelly, thanks so much.

Mr. CONNELLY: Thank you for having us.

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