Torstar Corp. is more than doubling the pool of reporters at its western Canadian Metro free daily newspapers, an unusual move in a shrinking industry that puts it in direct digital competition with one of its biggest rivals.
The initiative represents a major investment in journalism outside of the company’s Toronto headquarters, where it publishes the daily Toronto Star, Torstar chief executive officer John Boynton said Monday.
Twenty reporters are being added to the current 15 at the Metros in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and an undisclosed number of people are being added in Toronto to act as a support team, Mr. Boynton added.
“It’s an exciting day for news in Canada,” he said in an interview.
“Everybody seems to be going one way, which is a slow, eventual, continual decline in costs and a degradation of the product, and a retraction. I think we’re going completely the opposite direction, which is we’re going to invest in what we do best.”
He said the moves are designed to win new readers as well as lure audience from existing publications. He wouldn’t give financial details and said no deadline has been set to determine if the initiative is successful or not.
Torstar’s focus on western cities in which Postmedia Network Canada Corp. owns both major daily newspapers suggests it sees a competitive opportunity there, said April Lindgren, an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism.
“I suspect this is a recognition of the deep cuts that have happened at the Postmedia papers in those communities,” she said.
She added “round after round of layoffs” at those newspapers have affected their ability to produce quality local and investigative news.
At the same time Torstar is boosting competition in Western Canada, the Competition Bureau is alleging anti-competitive behaviour by the two companies in its investigation of a non-cash newspaper swap late last year between the two that resulted in 41 titles changing hands and 36 being closed, mainly in Ontario regions served by multiple publications, at a cost of nearly 300 jobs.
As part of the deal, Postmedia bought Torstar’s Metro Winnipeg and Metro Ottawa dailies and closed them, while Torstar did the same with Postmedia’s 24Hours Toronto and 24Hours Vancouver.
No charges have been laid and the Competition Bureau’s allegations have not been proven in court.
Mr. Boynton wouldn’t comment on the Competition Bureau investigation. He said the initiative announced Monday has been in the works for some months and, although its five remaining Metro newspapers are being rebranded StarMetro, the focus is really on the digital product.
“This is not a newspaper launch. This is a ‘news’ launch in those markets,” Mr. Boynton said. “And it’s a digital-first launch.”
He said the newspapers will be used to direct readers to city-specific versions of thestar.com that will feature regional news along with national and international news and columns. Consumers outside the target markets will see a national edition of thestar.com.
Mr. Boynton said Metro Halifax will be included in the transformation, but the company doesn’t yet have details on specific changes there. It also publishes a Toronto Metro daily.
He said that “contrary to conventional wisdom,” there is an appetite in Western Canada and the Maritimes for a “progressive voice” in media, adding the StarMetros will endeavour to match the Star’s focus on social issues and in-depth investigations.
The company has no immediate plans to bring in a paywall for its enhanced digital news products, Torstar spokesman Bob Hepburn said.
The investment is an unusual move in the Canadian newspaper industry, which has been losing titles and workers for years.
Ryerson’s Prof. Lindgren said a database she helps moderate shows that 244 local news sources of all types in 181 communities – including 213 newspapers in 168 communities – have closed since 2008 in Canada.
Aside from the Star and its affiliated website, Torstar owns daily and community newspapers throughout Ontario, a 56.4-per-cent interest in VerticalScope and minority interests in a number of other companies.
Torstar also 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.