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Toronto Star scrapped digital paywall as it was ‘expensive’ and had a ‘high churn’ rate

Julie Murtha speaking at the INMA World Congress in New York

Julie Murtha speaking at the INMA World Congress in New York

Executives from the Toronto Star have admitted paywalls did not work for them and said promoting stories inside the newspaper is a waste of time, arguing the space can better be used for editorial or advertising.

Addressing the International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress in New York today, Julie Murtha, director of audience and innovation at one of Canada’s biggest daily broadsheet newspapers, the Toronto Star, said their experience led them to question whether stories promoted on the front page increased print readership or sales.

“We recently measured the value of front page editorial promotion”, Murtha told the room. “The results actually surprised us – sky boxes and pointers do not affect readership, if a reader reads a section, they probably read the story whether it was promoted on the front page or not.

“With most readership now coming from home delivery we are no longer really concerned with pasting the front page with headlines and skyboxes.

“This thinking led to the creation of new ad units that offer advertisers the opportunity to capture reader attention with unique shaped ads that deliver maximum impact.”

Speaking to Mumbrella in a video hangout after today’s speech, the paper’s chief operating officer for print Sandy Macleod elaborated on the findings and what it meant to the newspaper in terms of freeing up front page space.

“We walked away from that saying we have some pretty valuable real estate on the front page which really isn’t paying for itself so to speak,” said MacLeod.

“We have eliminated sky boxes and we are using more for editorial and also for some interesting advertising.”

The Toronto Star COO also spoke about the decision to buck a global newspaper trend towards paywall models by removing the paywall last year.

“We had a nice run when we first launched it,”said MacLeod. “Had early adoption rates which we were quite thrilled with and then we hit a wall pretty quickly.

“Within about 90 days we seem to have plateaued – we spent about probably six months trying pretty aggressively trying to move the number and found that was expensive and a relatively high churn rate.

“When we investigated our opportunities long term we found we were better off to open up the website again and also now investing heavily in mobile and tablet applications and are now focused on growing audience.”

MacLeod warned other English language market newspapers that they were likely to see a similar stalling in their digital subscriber numbers.

“I think when you are in Toronto or in Sydney these days people can go anywhere, and while our content is unique it may not be unique enough for people to pay for,” he added.

The most recent Australian Audit Bureau of Circulation figures appeared to show slow downs in both the digital subscription uptakes of both Fairfax Media and News Corp, with the Herald Sun last quarter actually posting a year on year decline in digital subscriptions. 

MacLeod’s comments were also echoed by Murtha who on stage said: “I think if we are interested in driving that audience engagement and then a paywall works for that highly loyal but content is ubiquitous.”

Murtha’s presentation highlighted the Toronto Star’s attempts to grow print revenues through various strategies including rejigging its TV Guide, expanding its photo licencing and use of sample pages and events.

For a timeline of the questions: 

  • 0.25 The Toronto Star paywall experience 
  • 1.30 Toronto’s similarities to other English language newspapers markets
  • 2.30 The Toronto Star’s decision to move away from front page points and sky boxes
  • 4.30 The commercial value of using the front page for advertising and more editorial 
  • 5.00 Why all newspapers should question their use of skyboxes and pointers

Nic Christensen in New York covering the INMA 2015 World Congress. 

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