TORONTO – The Toronto Star is headed directly into uncharted territory with a new tablet application it hopes will keep younger readers from turning to other sources.
Star Touch, which launched Tuesday, marks the first time an English-language news organization has plunked down millions of dollars – and hired about 70 newsroom staff – solely for the purpose of building a tablet app.
It’s a risky endeavour that could be a runaway success or a colossal failure, but it comes at a time when Canada’s media businesses are struggling to keep pace with both dramatic shifts in technology and evolving reader habits.
The colourful Star Touch is inspired by the La Presse tablet app, which has been a rousing success for the Montreal-based, French-language newspaper. La Presse supplied the platform and some technical staff to help the Star develop its new app.
Like a newspaper, Star Touch will be updated around 5:30 a.m. each day and exists as a stand-alone publication which both taps into current technology trends while running against some of them.
For instance, part of the objective is to get readers to focus their attention only on Star Touch. The Star wants people to spend a chunk of their day perusing the broad lineup of stories, which incorporate vivid photography, videos and sometimes interactive charts and graphs.
Some ads are also interactive in an attempt to allow advertisers to reach and engage younger readers.
The design of Star Touch shies away from certain elements that have become commonplace in the media.
Unlike Google News, it doesn’t curate stories to appeal to each reader’s personal taste, and while Star Touch content can be shared on other social media platforms, readers will find the experience less appealing than it is inside the tablet app.
Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank said it’s part of a plan that makes the newspaper, the Star website and the new tablet app all priorities at the media company.
“We really do see the Star now as very much multi-platform,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.
“We focused all of our resources and attention in getting the tablet app up and running. It’s a very complex piece of technology and the changes in the newsroom were staggering in complexity.”
Breaking news stories will appear as headlines within Star Touch, which will link to the Star’s main website to provide the latest information, Cruickshank said.
Star Touch is only available on Apple iPads for now, though the company plans to launch a version that’s compatible with Android tablets this fall. The plan is to eventually make Star Touch available for smartphones as well, Cruickshank said.
Journalists at the Star have been asked to think differently about how they tell stories, to write shorter pieces and to experiment with multimedia.
The Star’s leadership has learned a couple of lessons in recent years as it looked to the future of the news industry, Cruickshank added.
“Print readers are going to stay with print (newspapers), they’re not going to leave it behind,” he said. “The second thing is, nobody under 50 is going to pay us for news.”
While the tablet push is an ambitious project, it comes years later than it should have, said Kaan Yigit, a technology analyst at Solutions Research Group.
“If this initiative was launched in 2012, it would’ve been bang-on,” he said. “Smartphones were still less capable, not as media-rich, and screens were smaller.”
But as the popularity of larger phones has picked up over the past three years, the use of tablets has seemingly peaked.
Research from IDC Canada shows that tablet sales in the Canadian market are expected to decline in the low double digits by the end of 2015 as consumers look elsewhere to spend their money on technology.
Canadians who already own tablets aren’t looking to upgrade their current devices either, said IDC analyst Vladyslav Mukherjee.
Technology companies hope to reverse the shift away from the device by releasing a round of “two-in-one” devices that can handle the heavier tasks of a traditional laptop.
Last week, Apple Inc. announced plans to launch the iPad Pro, a faster version of its past devices with a larger screen that could help convince more people to set aside their laptops.
“We expect that the number of shipments of two-in-one devices to almost double between 2015 and 2016,” said Mukherjee. “Two-in-one devices could bring the market back to growth in the medium term.”
Torstar holds an investment in The Canadian Press as part of a joint agreement with a subsidiary of the Globe and Mail and the parent company of Montreal’s La Presse.