Torstar Corp. (TSb.TO) has cut 52 jobs, including 45 from the Toronto Star’s newsroom, drastically reducing the staff working on the ambitious tablet edition launched less than a year ago.
The cuts include 26 temporary positions, most of them focused on the Toronto Star Touch tablet edition, and 19 permanent jobs. Of the permanent staff laid off, 10 are reporters and five are editors. The jobs being eliminated also include digitally-focused positions and four roles outside the newsroom at the free Metro daily newspapers.
“The moves are in response to declining advertising and our need to allocate the company's resources as cost-effectively as possible,” said Bob Hepburn, a spokesman for the Star, in an interview.
Tuesday’s cuts signal a significant pullback in the resources invested in Star Touch. As Torstar built toward the tablet edition’s launch last September, it hired about 70 dedicated newsroom staff, including reporters, videographers, designers, graphic artists. As of Tuesday, only 26 of those employees are still with the company.
“These changes are another important step in the Star’s strategic evolution along a path towards the multi-platform news media organization of the future,” said David Holland, Torstar’s chief executive officer, in a company memo. “Along with these staff reductions, the Star newsroom is also evolving its structure to place greater emphasis on key content areas such as breaking news, investigations and special projects.”
Mr. Hepburn also added: “We're still fully committed to the tablet.”
The company spent as much as $25-million getting the edition off the ground in 2015, and is spending another $10-million this year as it winds down an aggressive marketing plan. Even so, daily and weekly readership of Star Touch have fallen well short of the company’s initial expectations. More than 200,000 people have downloaded the app, and 55,000 to 60,000 use it each week, usually three to four times, spending an average of 25 to 30 minutes daily. But the latest indications from the company suggest growth in Star Touch readership has reached a plateau.
“Look, it's not as quick off the mark as we would have liked,” Mr. Holland said on a conference call with analysts in late July.
In January, at the same time Torstar announced it would close the Star’s Vaughan, Ont., printing plant, the company cut 10 contract staff who helped launch the tablet edition, ending their contracts early, and also slashed three other digitally-focused newsroom positions.
Torstar lost $23.9-million in the first quarter of 2016, partly because of costs relating to the plant closure, and also slashed its dividend for the second time this year.
The technology behind Star Touch is based on La Presse’s similar tablet edition, and if the French-language daily’s experience is any indication, some level of cutbacks were expected as the tablet edition settles into its daily production routine. But with Monday’s cuts, the Star’s tablet edition is a much smaller operation.
“We're making everything a bit leaner,” Mr. Hepburn said.
There has also been a noticeable shift in tone when the company discusses its ambition for the tablet edition. Prior to launch, the Star’s editor, Michael Cooke, once promised in a company memo that 2015 would be “the Year of the Tablet,” adding, “We are entering a period of fabulous life-changing non-stop revolution.” At launch, then-publisher John Cruickshank, who has since left the paper, called the tablet product “the biggest change in storytelling in a century.”
“The newsroom is producing for the tablet, and everything else will fall out of that. And that's huge,” he said at the time.
More recently, Mr. Holland – who is also set to retire later this year – has been more muted about the tablet’s potential.
“While change is never easy, it is essential that we continue to adapt, including evolving the organization and investing in those areas critical to our future,” he said in Tuesday’s memo.