Star editor: when digital subscriptions don’t work

Star editor: when digital subscriptions don’t workA story on Toronto Star's tablet app, Star Touch.

Toronto Star editor and Future Forum speaker Michael Cooke talks about the paper’s ambitious tablet app that was launched last year after it ditched its digital subscription model.

Toronto Star’s dance with digital subscriptions only lasted about 18 months.

After initially receiving a positive response to the launch of its metered model in August 2013, subscriptions soon plateaued and the Ontario masthead decided it would be better off unlocking its website. Toronto Star ended its paid digital offering in April 2015.

Out of that experience rose Star Touch, an edition-based free tablet app that aims to redefine the newspaper experience online. The app topped 200,000 downloads in January after it was launched in September last year.

The rich and immersive design of Star Plus makes it feel like much more like an interactive magazine than a newspaper.

There are practically no white spaces. Readers scroll through articles sitting atop striking photography and accompanied by videos, galleries, explainers and interactives.

Readers can also email a reporter or view their twitter feed by tapping their byline.

The ads are also interactive.

Michael Cooke, editor of Toronto Star, likes to describe Star Touch as doing for newspapers what theatrical entertainment company Cirque du Soleil did for the traditional circus with its tired animals and corny clowns.

“The core of the circus is still there. You still have the clowns, you still have the acrobats but the difference is between night and day,” Mr Cooke says.

The front page of Toronto Star in print (left) and the front page of its tablet app, Star Touch.

The front page of Toronto Star in print (left) and the front page of its tablet app, Star Touch.

Star Touch is based on the La Presse+ app.

La Presse, a French-language Quebec paper, has staked its future on the app having ended its print editions, with the exception of the converted Saturday paper, at the end of 2015.

While the DNA of the apps is the same, the two papers and their strategy is very different.

Toronto Star remained committed to its daily print editions as it embarked on the tablet journey. The paper has a much larger revenue base from its print subscriptions than La Presse did when it collapsed its daily editions.

Mr Cooke will be discussing the journey to Star Touch, and the different experiences of Toronto Star and La Presse in a presentation at this year’s Forum Future, an industry conference hosted by NewsMediaWorks.

Mr Cooke has previously served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News and The Vancouver Province. He was also part of a team of founding editors for Canada’s new national newspaper, The National Post. The Lancaster-born news man asserts that Star Touch doesn’t change the masthead’s journalism.

However Mr Cooke has certainly left his mark on the paper’s newsroom since taking up editorship in 2009.

Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke

Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke

“We’ve become more focused on the core of what we do which is to affect change in the community for the better,” he says.

“If you’re not getting action, you might as well not bother.”

This has seen The Star place a much greater emphasis on investigative journalism – an emphasis that has diffused investigations out of a single team and into the broader newsroom.

And the paper isn’t shy about broadcasting its victories and hammering home to readers its enduring influence; The Star’s front pages are often graced with the phrases “STAR GETS ACTION”, “STAR INVESTIGATION” and “STAR EXCLUSIVE”.

“We try to do journalism that falls into one of those three categories,” Mr Cooke says. “And a wonderful day for this newsroom is when we get that trifecta on the front page.”

The Star is also experimenting with alternate ways of paying reporters such as by securing funding from foundations.

Last year it partnered with environmental charity Tides Canada to produce a series of articles for the lead-up and aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change conference held in Paris last December.

Mr Cooke is well-aware of the great challenges facing the industry, but believes no one can know for sure know what the future holds.

“We’re all with good will, a good heart, a lot hope, a lot of intelligence and a lot of energy trying to basically save our industry,” he says.

There are some businesses, he says, like The Washington Post, the UK’s Financial Times and online-only plays like Vox carrying “beacons” for the industry.

“They’re not so focused on the Wall Street bottom line. They’re focused on building an audience, serving their readers and then making money and the ones that do make tonnes of it. You look at Politico in Washington. That was something that The Washington Post could’ve owned. They chose not to. Now it’s one of their biggest rivals.”

“There’s a reason that Blockbuster didn’t invent Netflix … Sometimes you need to be outside the building to get at that stuff.”

As for his advice for other editors: “However old you are, try to think a decade younger, maybe two decades younger and look out three years ahead.”

Michael Cooke will be a speaker at the Future Forum, hosted by NewsMediaWorks, at the Ivy in Sydney, on Friday, September 2. Click here to register.

Check out highlights from speakers at the 2015 Future Forum using the playlist below.

For more news from NewsMediaWorks, click here.

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