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Toronto Star abandons Star Touch tablet app, lays off 30 staff members

The Toronto Star newsroom at One Yonge Street is shown on Nov. 28, 2016.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

After investing about $40-million on tablet publishing, the Toronto Star announced that it's abandoning Star Touch, two years after launching the app.

Twenty-nine full-time and one part-time staff have received layoff notices.

The tablet-centred publishing platform has been at the heart of Torstar Corp.'s digital strategy since 2015. Launched with fanfare and a wave of job hires, Star Touch failed to gain traction with readers or advertisers.

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Torstar has seen double-digit percentage declines in revenue for the past several years. Canadian publishers have been struggling as they attempt to navigate a shift to digital publication and face competition for advertisers from major online platforms such as Google and Facebook.

"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 memo to staff on Monday. The decision to close Star Touch is the first major move made by Mr. Boynton, who took over as CEO in March.

The tablet's monthly audience peaked at 80,000 unique readers, a small percentage of the Star's monthly online readership, which hovers around 550,000 in the Greater Toronto Area alone, according to spokesman Bob Hepburn.

"The news that our tablet product will cease operation in a few weeks is terrible," Star editor Michael Cooke wrote in a separate memo sent to staff. "There's no way to spoon honey on to that."

"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," Mr. Cooke wrote.

The specific Star Touch contract between the LaPresse and Torstar has ended, according to Mr. Hepburn. However, he said the companies will continue to work together on other publishing ventures.

Going forward, the Star will focus on a single "universal" app that will be used across tablets and mobile phones, according to Mr. Boynton. The app is already available on phones, and will replace Star Touch on tablets in July.

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"We need to simplify our business and having three downloadable apps, namely a tablet app, a mobile app and PDF, confuses consumers and is resource intensive, complex and costly. Having just two apps will simplify this," Mr. Boynton wrote.

Of the 30 employees impacted by Monday's decision – all designers, content editors or technical staff – some may be able to stay on by bumping more junior staff.

"It's not a terrible shock, but it's still distressing for the people who are involved," said Jim Rankin, the Star unit chair for Unifor Local 87-M, which represents 17 of the staff affected by the decision.

"Like the company, we hoped that it would be a viable product that would be one of the models that would help continue to pay for the journalism and the jobs that are at the Toronto Star. And so it's sad that it's coming to an end," Mr. Rankin added.

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