July 24, 2017 Last Updated 11:23 am

Toronto Star updates Star Touch iPad app one last time to direct readers to updated mobile app

The iPad digital edition app, built off the La Presse+ platform, will be shutdown at the end of the month, ending an expensive experiment, one probably launched with unreasonable expectations of what success would look like

When the Quebec daily La Presse released its iPad app La Presse+ in 2013 I called the app ” possibly the first real successful attempt to reimagine the daily newspaper for tablets,” in a rave first look at the app.

“After three years of research and development, we are proud to offer users an innovative digital edition that will redefine the way they get their information, while maintaining La Presse’s DNA in terms of content quality,” said Guy Crevier, President and Publisher, La Presse in the company’s launch announcement. “La Presse+ is an exceptional tool that enriches and expands upon the quality and depth of the news experience.”

Since that time, La Presse has committed its future to digital, and to its app, by shuttering its weekday print editions. Then, two years later, the Toronto Star decided to come on board, investing a shocking amount of money to replicate La Presse with its own app, Star Touch by Toronto Star.

As much as I am a fan of tablet editions (and digital editions, in general), as a publisher I would have recoiled to learn that a newspaper would have invested so much — about $40 million over its lifetime — on an app project.

No surprise then to learn that  when the time came, as it did last month, to wind down the project, 30 employees lost their jobs.

“The overall numbers of readers and advertising volumes are significantly lower than what the company had forecast and than what are required to make it a commercial success,” Torstar chief executive officer John Boynton wrote in a staff memo in June.

“In committing to the tablet, the Star was deeply informed by the experience of LaPresse+ in Montreal, where a similar product (though in French, of course) was launched earlier, and remains, by accounts as recently as last week, a success – to the point LaPresse is exiting print completely, something that was not contemplated with our launch, and which is not happening here,” Star editor Michael Cooke wrote in a separate memo to staff.

So, today the Star has updated its Star Touch app one last time in order to direct readers to its recently mobile app, which was updated on the 14th to add iPad support.

Where did Star Touch go wrong? Let me count the ways.

First, it is easy for any publishing solution to fail to live up to expectations if those expectations are not reasonable. And how are expectations set? It can be complicated by the fact that one wants to invest heavily in something. Put that much expense on one side of the ledger, and the revenue side has to be pumped up, as well. That’s a recipe for failure. Budgeting is a lost art, and many of those currently in the newspaper leadership roles today do not come from the business side.

Second, I could never really understand the business model for the app, which did not replicate print in that it had a paid component, but the web where access is free. To invest so heavily into a free product should have set off alarm bells at the publisher.

In the end, the previous publisher, John Cruickshank, stepped down last year, no doubt after it became apparent that experiment was not panning out.

According to numbers reported by The Globe and Mail, the tablet edition peaked at around 80,000 readers, seen as a small percentage of the paper’s half a million online readers.

But that isn’t actually bad for a tablet edition, as anyone with experience with the platform would have said. At 80K, this would have represented a 15 percent boost in digital readership.

The Star’s weekday circulation is around 175,000, with Saturday 50 percent higher. We’re dealing with the typical problem of Canadian publishing, small numbers. To justify such a huge investment one would have needed to either sell a ton of digital advertising, or else sell a lot of digital subscriptions — any other result would mean failure.

Now the paper will depend on its mobile app, now made universal.

“In response to feedback, we are announcing that the Star will launch a new universal app that operates both on smartphones and tablets and that offers more of the features that you, our readers, have told us you want: breaking news, constant updates, more content, easy searches and navigation and the ability to share items much more easily on social media,” Boynton announced four weeks ago today.

“Also, the universal app will allow readers to enjoy the same user experience with the Star on their smartphone as they do on their tablet device.”

Side note: It will be difficult to judge how Star readers will react to the news that Star Touch is shutting down at the end of this month… as the paper at the end of 2015 shutdown its comment threads.

I have supported the decision of publishers to shutdown comments (TNM shutdown its comments a while back). But here is one example where the decision limits the feedback one can get regarding one’s digital decisions.

But if the user reviews found inside the Canadian App Store is any indication, readers enjoyed Star Touch. Of the 2,510 ratings, 70 percent were 5-star.

“This is a Great app. Please do not discontinue. In this day it’s hard to find an app that delivers, and Star Touch does. I would be happy to pay a reasonable subscription rate to keep the app,” the most recent review says (with typos corrected).

Another says simply “Star Touch will be missed!”

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