Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Toronto Star’s Plan to Save Itself

Brett Popplewell, the Walrus:

Shortly after his arrival in 2017, John Boynton, Cruickshank’s replacement as publisher of the newspaper and Torstar CEO, called a town hall in the newsroom. Boynton is a fifty-four-year-old turnaround specialist with no real journalistic experience but a record of success in running Aeroplan and other multi-million-dollar loyalty programs. The job of saving the Star has fallen to him. What he inherited when hired wasn’t just the fate of Torstar’s 3,800 employees but the legacy of the Star’s costliest and most valuable resource: its reporting.

According to sources, Boynton, standing near the empty desks of the men and women who’d been hired and then fired as a result of Star Touch, looked at what was left of his staff and said: “We can’t be a department store anymore.” The Star needed to transform into a publication less concerned with being everything for everyone on the streets of Toronto. It needed instead to do what tech companies like Facebook and Google were doing — study its readership algorithmically, learn what readers want, and stop feeding them what they don’t.

“We’re going to kill some sacred cows,” he said. The words alarmed many. Someone asked what the Star would consider a sacred cow. “We need the data,” Boynton replied. The response didn’t ease any concerns. In the old model, every reader counted. Soon, only those whom data science indicates have a propensity to pay may end up mattering to the Star — and any other newspaper still standing after the next presidential election. The trend won’t just redefine the value of certain journalists but the value of certain types of journalism as well.

No matter how much I want the Star to succeed and cannot imagine the pressures it faces, along with almost every other newspaper, this sort of thinking worries me. The present U.S. administration has probably caused subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times to shoot higher, but that’s not because we want to read more hard news; we like spectacle, and we’re getting that in spades. We also need news coverage with less intrigue, but still carries great importance, and that remains a hard sell.

Last year, I read “Saving the Media” by Julia Cagé, and its proposal fascinated me. Cagé proposes a new way for media organizations to be recognized in a business sense, which, she says, would give greater control over a newspaper’s editorial direction to its staff, and more diversified funding sources without editorial influence. I don’t know how scalable this business model is for, say, a local-only paper to something more like the Star, but it’s a proposal worth considering. Try to find the book at your local library or independent bookshop.