Star Touch should be a lesson for publishers

The demise of Star Touch, announced last week – was not a surprise to anyone. Hilariously, the company press release did mention “we were surprised by the low numbers”, which is a huge red flag. Nobody should have been surprised by that, and this quote is mentioned in multiple “obituaries” that instantly went online: NiemanLab’s take was thoughtful; Andrew Potter has put it in historical perspective and broke down the impact of the (impending) government bailout to old media; Gary Ng did a brief numeric breakdown of readership. All these articles have extensive comments on them, and I highly recommend you read them all – it’s pure gold. There was also a mention by Jonathan Goldsbie, and a rather snarky and angry discussion on Canadaland, by Jesse Brown on the Shortcuts episode. There’s more, I’m sure. And most of these points are valid. Especially in reader comments.

As tempting as it may be to continue with snark and anger, I want to look at this more positively.

I think the Star Touch experiment should be a business lesson, for all publishers, especially Canadian. I think it should be taught in business schools and universities. A lesson of what NOT TO DO.

(Again, I’m not being snarky, I genuinely see value in this, but we need to dig a little).

Star Touch was an ambitious idea (plus), but it cost too much to develop and maintain (minus).

It opened the doors to many digitally-savvy people (plus), but they were put in a position of little impact or influence (minus).

It briefly employed a couple of brilliant tech lead (plus), who was not kept around long enough to make a lasting culture shift, or build a business case for sunsetting legacy product (minus).

It was built on an ad-driven model (plus), with little regard to emerging ad-blocking (minus), and little experimentation in other revenue streams (minus).

It also took little notice of other similar, failed experiments from The Post (minus), and Murdoch’s tablet play (minus), not to mention various smaller players experimenting with leaky paywalls (minus).

Most importantly for me (because I’m a numbers person), Star Touch was based on a niche market, backed up by metrics (huge plus) – but those metrics were horribly misinterpreted, and not validated often enough (massive minus).

I think this alone, if caught and corrected in time – would have saved everyone a lot of time and money. And publishers – are running out of both. Seriously, how can you look at your traffic reports, and see a measurable, scalable audience, exclusively on tablets? In what universe? This was not 2010, when the first iPad came out, and one could have capitalized on a spike in usage. This project was announced in 2013, the massive hiring spree was in 2014, and launched in 2015. This is a very recent, and very young product – who in their right mind would see a mass news market in tablets? People who were given tablets in their new ‘digital executive’ vapour jobs? Yes, those five people, and the thirty or so clients they saw that year – might have carried tablets around for news consumption. The rest of us use phones. Also, based on LaPresse success in Quebec? No, no, no – you’re looking at a completely different market and media consumption habits.

And then, of course, the massive amounts of money. The figures fluctuate between 20 and 26 million dollars, but pause for a second, and ask – for what? Licensing? Fraction of the cost. Journalism jobs? Everyone knows no journalists are paid well, especially in this small market. Developers and webmasters? Possibly – but then ask yourself, are you licensing an existing product, or adding a whole level of extra costs by extending and customizing it? Are you a publisher, or a software developer? Stop this nonsense! Transcon did the same thing ten years ago with NStein CMS. First, it was a licensed, fully operational platform, and then, as it customized and mutated, it became an ever-increasing cost for all internal brands. Stop trying to build software! Stop hiring dev leads to run digital operations – they will just want to code more stuff for you. There are plenty of CMS solutions on the market. Just run one of them, occasionally integrate with other applications, to distribute your stories to other platforms and eyeballs – but just use the tools already on the market. So much cheaper. That’s how you minimize legacy software issues.

And finally – the culture change. The new hires were supposed to change the newsroom – publish faster, publish on multiple platforms, push to social. But did it actually happen? Of course not. Editors were resizing photos to fit tablet edition, because it was different from print edition. Are you for real? You cannot automate that process in 2015? The fancy licensed CMS cannot do that on the fly? Or your Photoshop cannot export multiple sizes right away, for editors to pick up later? Was the newsroom prepared to collaborate with digital folks? Was the union happy at this disruption? Remember, what was an innovation to some – was a disruption to others. New stuff to learn, new workflows, more oversight, younger people in charge (gasp). I don’t think it happened – and I don’t think the tablet edition was able to shift enough skilled people away from print product. And if it did – I really want to know how many – because that would be the silver lining.

So many mistakes – with resource management, analytics, scaling up, operational costs, culture shift, dev dependencies. Maybe they just tried to change too many things – but again – even a project that big can be divided into smaller chunks and delivered. Change management is not impossible, just hire the right people to do this. So, all of that could have been avoided, self-corrected, and maybe even pivoted (very early on) to become a much better product. You needed a half decent analyst to tell you the actual market projection; a really good senior PM to help change, deploy and iterate; an understanding evangelist, to keep all teams and committees happy and playing along; and a solid technologist to help push the tablet, and make business cases for reducing print operations. Hey, I might actually know a guy who would do this perfectly, and build you something new, while gradually sunsetting something old. Wanna reach out to him?

Was sunsetting even on the table?

Perhaps their new universal app will do just that – news, at your fingertips, along with engagement and public conversation, and it will also generate revenue, cost less than print product, and will form a loyal mobile readership. And perhaps this painful, expensive purge will actually walk out the door a few people who have been doing the same exact thing for the last twenty years. That purge is needed – not just at the Star – but in every publisher. But it’s 2017, and it’s much much too late. They should have cut when they COULD, not now, when they MUST.

Coincidentally, the number of people being let go is very similar to the number of people originally hired. Wasn’t this new fresh blood supposed to push out some of the dinosaurs? Eliminate some of the legacy jobs altogether? And what exactly happened to the leadership that kept steering that sinking ship? Someone kept insisting on a bigger market share, right? Someone kept pitting the digital and union teams together; kept misinterpreting (or deliberately fudging) the numbers to keep it going for so long. Who are these people? Are they out the door? Out of the industry? Retired for good with generous packages? Or still lurking in corner offices?

Star Touch was a disaster – and its only value is what the publishers can learn from it. Learn fast and lean. Toronto Start should share some numbers with the world – what worked, and what didn’t (more in the latter pile, I’m sure). To me, it’s all red, all wasted effort. But at least I know what not to do (psst, I kinda know what to do, and knew this for a while; wanna talk shop?) I’ll look forward to the new universal app, of course – but I am not holding my breath.

If you want a good lesson about lean, audience-focused, data-driven brand building, reach out to Ken Hunt at Toronto Life, and ask him about 12:36 – how quickly, and collaboratively that product was developed, built, launched. And ask about the costs and people involved – and try not to laugh – because that number will amuse you, I promise. It is possible for publishers to be agile, and it’s a lot of fun, too. Publishers absolutely can and should experiment – they already have the two biggest assets on their hands – content and audiences. They need to do it in small ways, and measure actual success.

Maybe then, after your next failed experiment – because it didn’t cost too much, and didn’t take too long – you would get cheers from the industry, instead of a chorus of obituaries. You just need a good technologist to steer and execute your ideas, to keep costs down, and to generate new revenue. And I think I know a guy…

Okay, okay, this is getting a little too self-serving :)