What the Toronto Star got really, really wrong with Star Touch

Photo from here.

I’m no fan of startup jargon—there’s a very thin line between innovation and bullshit—but there’s one term I’m a big fan of: “achieving failure.” It’s from Lean Startup, and essentially, it means spending a lot of time and money to perfectly execute something that it turns out nobody wants. If you want a case study, look no further than the Toronto Star’s tablet app, Star Touch. They thought it up in early 2014, announced it in January 2015, and only launched it in September 2015. It has cost the company $32.8 million, nearly two years, and two rounds of layoffs for “between 55,000 and 60,000 readers” each week. That’s nothing for a media company with a combined daily print and digital readership that’s somewhere north of two million, and it’s also an audience that I’d bet is no more attractive to advertisers buying ads or sponsored content than what the Star’s other products have.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked to J-Source and Marketing Magazine about building new digital things within an established but small media company like mine, in particular 12:36—Marc Weisblott’s wonderful daily tabloid newsletter that I’m in charge of strategy and product for. One thing I’ve learned, and that I hinted at in both stories, is that when you have what you think is a good idea for something, there’s no shame in starting meagrely and a little messily, which we did when we launched 12:36. That wasn’t easy for me; I’m fussy, and much happier when things are perfect. But trying to create something that’s perfect when it launches, rather than seeing perfection as the goal you are going to be forever working towards, is dangerous. You don’t know if anyone is going to give a shit about your great idea. And if they do give a shit, they might not give a shit in the way you thought they would.

That’s why you’re supposed to use your vision to create what’s called a minimum viable product — I tell people that that means something one notch above something they’d be embarrassed by — get it out into the world, then pay attention to how people actually use it, a thing that’s never been easier thanks to the ever-increasing amount and detail of data you can get for any and all digital products. Then you use that data to keep making the thing better. Or, if you can’t make it work, you stop. Failure is totally an option; it’s when it’s not that you’re in trouble.

It’s not that the Star having a tablet app like Star Touch was necessarily a bad idea, and in the few times I’ve used it, I’ve liked it just fine. It’s that they went about it exactly backwards, spending a year and a half and tens of millions of dollars, not to mention restructuring the entire newsroom, to get things just so before their readers ever saw it. They should’ve put six employees in a room and given them a month to launch something that would’ve quickly given the company a much better sense of just how good of an idea a tablet app was. If that project had failed, no sweat.

But this one? They’ve spent so much on this now—in money, in time, in reputation, in staff—that they feel like they can’t stop, even though they should. In the memo that went out this week when dozens of journalists working on the app were laid off, the paper’s new publisher David Holland wrote that:

…as we move forward with these changes, I want to re-affirm our continued commitment to Star Touch as an integral part of the Star’s multi-platform future. While our current audience size is not yet what we had initially anticipated, we are pleased that Star Touch has developed a highly engaged and loyal audience of committed readers. Continuing to grow from this core audience base is a key priority.

Back in January, when ten Star Touch employees lost their jobs, the publisher at the time, John Cruickshank, told staff this:

Growing our digital operation in 2014–15, and launching Toronto Star Touch last fall, were moves we made with a degree of experimentation and uncertainty about what was needed in the marketplace and what the revenue impacts would be.

“Uncertainty about what was needed in the marketplace and what the revenue impacts would be”? That sure sounds like a pretty good example of when to not spend tens of millions of dollars and two years on something before you know whether it’s a good idea. Not in Canada, not in journalism, and not right now. Instead, with Star Touch, the Star put itself in a position it never needed to be in: first, they made it so that failure wasn’t an option, and then, they failed.

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