Toronto Star newspaper afternoon edition in PDF format. What are they thinking?

Toronto StarIn September, the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, began publishing an afternoon edition in PDF form. CJR Daily has an interesting interview with two editors from the Toronto Star, who explain the thinking behind this initiative.

The Star is a great newspaper. And I think that the people at the Star are working overtime to explore the potential for their content of the new delivery channels and socila media. However, when I first heard of this initiative, I couldn’t quite understand what they were up to. And this interview only makes me think that this concept is fatally flawed.

First, in reading the interview, it seems that this initiative is rooted primarily is a demand on the part of Star employees to bring back an afternoon edition. There’s no sense in the interview that the paper’s readers were looking for something like this.

To the extent that the readers’ needs and wants figure into the Star’s thinking, it seems to relate to a belief that there are people who don’t have time to look at the online edition during the day, but who will have the time to download and print an eight to twelve page mini-edition of the newspaper.

Columbia Journalism ReviewEBC: Still, at first glance the idea of a new afternoon newspaper does seem counterintuitive. Why create an entirely separate edition of the paper when you can already post breaking news articles on the Web site during the course of the day?
Michael Babad: Yeah, you ask a really good question there, and it’s one that obviously we kicked around. The idea is the Star‘s Web site gets heavy traffic, so we know in fact (as you suggest) that people are looking at it throughout the day, but a couple of things. Not everybody can look throughout the day because of whatever their work environment is, and there are some [features] you can’t necessarily find — so I guess the key thing here is that editors, who have for eons put together newspapers by picking the stories, editing the stories, and presenting the stories, are giving you something that is pre-packaged, where you can at a glance get the top stories of the day, what we feel you might be interested in, plus some special things that go beyond just breaking news, like lifestyle stories, entertainment stories, puzzles. …

Huh? And people who don’t have time to read through the easily navigable home page of the star online will have time to download and print a PDF? And they’ll also want to take it with them to read during their commute after such a busy day? This sure seems counterintuitive to me.
And why did afternoon newspapers dies out in the first place? Wasn’t it because of competition from up to date, evening radio and television news broadcasts? Add to the current mix downloadable podcast content, the ability to take emails and web content out of the office on BlackBerries and even to use these devices to surf the web for up to the minute content – and it seems to me that the Star is chasing a miniscule set of readers.

There are many innovate people at the Star and in the newspaper industry. And they will evolve the medium to compete with the new media. But this initiative by the Star isn’t really a step forward. It smacks too much of simply trying to apply the old model to a new medium. And I can’t believe that will work.

Hey guys, don’t put flanged train wheels on a truck!

  • Judy Gombita

    Joe, something I’m not understanding in your argument: why do all of the “press” innovations have to be of the new media variety? Obviously that is your preference (plus that of a significant percentage of others), which the Toronto Star has recognized. As a result it has increased its offerings of new media accordingly. But do you recall the survey that came out last month, indicating the three major newspapers in the Toronto market have all *increased their print* market readership share? (Apparently Toronto is an anomaly amongst the large North American cities in this regard.) And The Toronto Star continues to have Canada’s largest newspaper distribution—about double that of its closest daily competitor.

    Am I interested in a PDF file version of an afternoon edition of the newspaper? Not particularly, as I drive to and from work and am more interested in watching the late-breaking news on the early evening TV shows (a different medium again). However, a colleague of mine who *does* commute by subway is now faithfully downloading and printing off the afternoon edition of The Star, because she says its length and amount of interesting information perfectly match the time she has available commuting home by subway. (We use the same printer on this floor, and I’ve seen that afternoon’s version sitting there several times at 4 p.m. or so.)

    I guess she’s part of the demographic The Star researched as being open to receiving information in this format. Ultimately, the success (or failure) of this initiative will be determined by how much resources the newspaper needs to deploy versus how many people are downloading the PDF files. How about giving it a bit of time and letting The Star’s readership vote with their feet (a.k.a. afternoon clicks), before deeming it a backward move? Just a thought.

    Cheers,
    Judy

  • Hi Joe- I actually really like the Star P.M. You can have it delivered to your email when it’s available and it take about 2 seconds to download. Even if I don’t print it out for the commute home, I like to scroll through to see what some of the main headlines were throughout the day. I listen to News Radio all day, so I’m pretty up-to-speed, but it’s nice to read about the same topic from a new point of view. I see a lot of people reading it on the subway, so I think they found a small niche- afterall, it can’t cost them much to put it together and it might grab some new readers.
    I say kudos to the Star for using a new medium to to apply a model that has worked for decades.

  • Hi Judy,
    You make a really good point about not all innovations having to be new media innovations. On the other hand, I worry about the buggy whip manufacturers who decide to open a better buggy whip plan across the street from Henry Ford.

  • Hi Jos,
    Well, you’ve clearly demonstrated that there is a readership for afternoon PDF.
    But I wonder, why would you want to scroll through a PDF online when you can go to the Star’s homepage that has the stories updated regularly?

  • I do regulary check the Star’s homepage, but I find it nice and fast at the end of the day to scroll through all the top stories without having to jump between sections (world, life, sports) on the website.

  • Upon first hearing about this, I also didn’t think it made a whole lot of sense. But as Judy points out, there may be a market for it, particulatly amongst people who commute on public transit (I walk to and from work).

    The Star (like the Globe, but unlike the Post, Citizen, Gazette, etc.) offers RSS feeds. Which means people with a BlackBerry could have news sent directly to them throughout the day using services like http://www.inclue.com.

    However, not everyone has a BlackBerry and its not always efficient to read longer messages/articles on BlackBerry because only so many bites of info get displayed at a time. Nor is it necessarily that efficient to surf the web on a Blackberry.

    So, while I (and Joe) aren’t part of it, there may be a market for this amongst The Star’s readers.

  • Joe,

    How is this process not redundant?

    People can print the web pages off just as easily as a PDF, can’t they? Why not just add a printer friendly icon on every page of their site and have the application strip out unnecessary graphics? This way people can print off any section of the paper without having to create an afternoon edition.

    Perhaps the Star should investigate the Ajax programming methodology and the nearly limitless choices this provides end users in controlling / managing content on websites.

    This reminds me of the story about how during the space race, the Americans spent millions on a pen that could write upside down in space. The Russians used a pencil. In other words, don’t try and create a solution when you already have a tool that will do the job (RSS), as Keelan has pointed out.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

  • Judy Gombita

    Yes, The Star’s ability to offer consumers a “choice” in how and when they consume news and information was at the root of my comment, so I appreciate you noticing, Keelan. Knowledge and education is the great equalizer, so I think the necessity to own a PDA (let alone a laptop) to consume news would be unfair, for various socio-economic reasons.

    I still remember Tom Williams of GiveMeaning.com at the mesh conference’s panel conversation: Can Web 2.0 Change the World?, indicating that supplying free computers to children in Africa was irresponsible, if the basic infrastructures and necessities of life (e.g., roads for transportation, clean and free water, electricity) were not taken care of first.

    And, as I’ve realized in my job (dealing with a large membership and various publics)—some people just outright prefer downloading and reading a PDF file. Their choice.

  • Hi again Judy,

    The Star announced yesterday that both its publisher and editor-in-chief are leaving the paper. The online division is only a small portion of the Star’s operation. And I’m sure that it did not play a large role in the decision. Nevertheless, I think the reorganization announced by the Star clearly signals that the Board too believes that management wasn’t heading in the right direction. Which was my original point about the afternoon PDF edition.

    By the way, I know Giles Gherson, the former editor – and he’s a good guy. I’m in no way celebrating his ouster.

  • Judy Gombita

    Hey, how come I get singled out, Joe? I told you that a PDF file of a mini-newspaper wasn’t my choice to get information, but I respected the right of others to choose to download and read ’em. 😉

    BTW, coverage on the Torstar shake-up in today’s *print* Report on Business section (Globe and Mail), “Struggling Torstar shakes up executive ranks,” speculates on a whole host of underpinning troubles for this large conglomerate (e.g., its Harlequin Books division, amalgamation of publications into the Star Media Group, Bell Globemedia, etc.), but offering a PDF file version of The Star—although mentioned as a recent “initiative”—wasn’t highlighted as one of the problems. (Online version of the article available to subscribers only.)

    To wit: “It’s clearly a reflection of the lack of progress in trying to turn around the fortunes of the Star, said Adam Shine, an analyst with National Bank Financial Inc., in Montreal. “The issues have to relate to finding the right strategy to stem the [advertising] linage bleed, compete against the free commuter papers, and other media, in particular radio and the Internet, that seem to be siphoning off ad dollars from the newspaper.”

    Question for you: is it forbidden in your house to read anything but online? (i.e., are print newspapers brought in surreptitiously, for fear of the buggy whip?) Rhetorical questions only…. Cheers, Judy

  • Hi Judy,
    I didn’t mean to single you out. It’s just that your views are well framed and clearly stated. It gives me something to chew on.
    And yep. My kids get to touch newsprint. Lots of it!

  • Judy Gombita

    OK Joe, as long as you declare my comments to be “well framed and clearly stated,” not to mention chew-worthy, I won’t bear you any grudge.

    Relieved to hear that the printed word is welcomed in La Casa Thornley. And hmmm…for that matter, I think I’m going to be checking out *your* hands tonight, for any traces of newsprint or PDF file ink….

  • Judy Gombita

    At the risk of flogging a dead horse with that old buggy whip…. 😉

    (As read via my e-mailed Market Opener from [email protected])

    Cost-cutting Torstar tries to reassure shareholders

    GRANT ROBERTSON
    Globe and Mail Update

    “A day after the management shakeup, newly appointed Star publisher Jagoda Pike told employees that no major cuts were being contemplated. Nor is the company looking to kill Star P.M., a downloadable paper launched last month.”

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20061017.wtorstarr1017/BNStory/Business/?cid=al_gam_nletter_maropen

    (Maybe Jagoda Pike is monitoring your blog!)

    It was great to finally meet in person last night, Joe. Thanks again to Thornley Fallis for sponsoring an informative and interesting session with Mathew Ingram, plus to Ed Lee (of FH), et al. for making all of the arrangements.

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