Less than a year after the Toronto Star launched an ambitious tablet edition designed to reshape the newspaper's digital future, parent company Torstar Corp. has slashed 52 jobs, dramatically shrinking the project's core staff.
The cuts announced Tuesday include 45 people from the Star's newsroom, 26 of whom were on contract jobs and mostly dedicated to Toronto Star Touch. Another 19 were full-time staff, including 10 reporters and five editors, while three digitally focused positions and four jobs outside the newsroom at the free Metro daily newspapers were eliminated.
The layoffs represent a major retrenchment in resources devoted to the tablet edition as the company lowers its expectations for the project's popularity with readers, but also shows the deep financial troubles afflicting Torstar. The publisher of newspapers including the Star and The Hamilton Spectator recently closed its printing plant in Vaughan, Ont., outsourcing printing of the Star and putting 285 people out of work, and posted a $23.9-million loss in the first quarter of 2016.
"The moves are in response to declining advertising and our need to allocate the company's resources as cost-effectively as possible," Bob Hepburn, a spokesman for the Star, said in an interview.
Torstar's leadership is also in flux. The Star's publisher, John Cruickshank, left the company in May, and its chief executive officer, David Holland, plans to retire this fall. The head of the Star's tablet project, Jon Filson, also left the paper this summer amid an internal investigation into inappropriate newsroom relationships.
Last year, as Torstar laid the groundwork for the tablet edition's September launch, it hired about 70 dedicated newsroom staff, including reporters, videographers, designers and graphic artists. As of Tuesday, only 26 are still with the company.
Torstar spent about $25-million getting Star Touch off the ground in 2015, and is doling out another $10-million this year. Even so, tablet readership has fallen well short of the company's initial expectations. Between 55,000 and 60,000 readers use the app each week, typically three to four times, spending an average of 25 to 30 minutes on it in a given day. But the latest indications suggest the Star's tablet audience has reached a plateau.
Company executives have also told investors the company aims to make Star Touch break even by 2017, and Mr. Hepburn confirmed that Tuesday's cuts are part of a plan to reach that goal.
"These changes are another important step in the Star's strategic evolution along a path towards the multiplatform news media organization of the future," Mr. Holland said in a company memo on Tuesday. "Along with these staff reductions, the Star newsroom is also evolving its structure to place greater emphasis on key content areas such as breaking news, investigations and special projects."
Tuesday's job losses are only the latest of several rounds of cost cutting at Torstar. In January, as the printing plant closing was announced, Torstar cut 10 contract staff who helped launch the tablet edition, as well as three other digitally focused newsroom positions and 15 circulation staff.
Some of the contract positions cut on Tuesday were due to expire at the end of the year, and the union that represents newsroom staff at the Star, Unifor Local 87-M, had hoped to convert them to permanent jobs.
"It's a really hard day," said Jim Rankin, a Star journalist and vice-chair of the union's local unit. "We're told it's purely about economics and it's not about individual talents."
The technology behind Star Touch is based on La Presse's similar tablet edition, La Presse+, and if the French-language daily is a model, some level of cutbacks could be expected as staff settle into a daily production routine. But Tuesday's cuts go beyond fine-tuning, and Mr. Rankin said it will be "a challenge" to program the app with a slimmer staff.
"We're making everything a bit leaner," Mr. Hepburn said, but added: "We're still fully committed to the tablet."
The company has adopted a more muted tone when discussing its hopes for Star Touch. Prior to launch, the Star's editor, Michael Cooke, declared that 2015 would be "the Year of the Tablet," adding: "We are entering a period of fabulous life-changing non-stop revolution." In an interview last September, Mr. Cruickshank called the tablet edition "the biggest change in storytelling in a century."
Instead, the company is marking another pivot point as it searches for a way to turn the corner.
"We have to keep rethinking everything we do and how we do it. We have to, and will, keep trying new things," Mr. Cooke said in a separate memo to staff. "Everyone here agrees with that."