Star Media is Making News You Can Touch

With digital technologies and changing consumer trends spinning journalism faster than ever before, media companies like Star Media Group—home of the Toronto Star—are leading the revolution. Star Media’s CHRO Brian Daly explains how.

Everyone knows that people consume news in a whole new way now. Readers are online, on mobile, and they’re doing so in bite-sized pieces. Our print readers are very loyal, but it’s increasingly difficult to add new readers, especially younger ones. Traditional media companies that want to survive will have to do more than adapt—they’ll have to innovate. And in 2015, we rolled out one of the biggest innovations in our 120-year history.

At the Toronto Star, we believe that quality journalism has an essential role to play in society. We see ourselves as Canada’s leading progressive media organization, and we have a strong social mission to focus public attention on injustices and on reforms designed to correct them. Internally, as an HR team, our job is to make a difference in an organization that makes a difference in the community.

This year, HR is doing that by helping our staff completely transform the way they tell stories—through a new, free digital platform called Star Touch that allows us to tell stories in a much more engaging and interactive way.

“WE TRULY SEE OURSELVES AT A CROSSROADS. WE’VE MOVED FROM A PRODUCT-DRIVEN NEWSPAPER COMPANY, TO A MULTI-PLATFORM NEWS MEDIA COMPANY THAT IS FUNDAMENTALLY AUDIENCE-DRIVEN.”

When people read news online or on mobile, they typically only read for a few minutes. Depth of engagement with news is declining, and this has significant social implications. A drop in news consumption among young people correlates with declining voter turnout, for example. From a business standpoint, advertisers spend less in print as they increasingly look online, but online ad rates are tiny in a world where global goliaths like Google and Amazon can sell ads for a fraction of a penny.

And that’s why we’re so excited about our new Star Touch tablet app, which allows us to get closer to the newspaper model of giving advertisers deeply engaged readers who spend more time with content, including advertising content, which can then attract a significantly higher price point than typical online advertising.

We launched Star Touch in the fall of 2015 and see it as a revolutionary new platform for delivering news to a new generations of readers. Star Touch uses a technology platform developed by Montréal-based news organization La Presse, and we’re the only English-language version in the world. In Québec, they’ve seen readers spend close to an hour each day on their tablet edition, called La Presse+.

This transition required us to retool our HR function in a very short time. Our HR staff had become seasoned experts in restructuring and downsizing business operations. Now, we were called upon to shift gears on a dime and start up our largest recruitment and training effort in more than a decade. The Star Touch project alone required us to hire 100 people in disciplines we’ve never engaged before, like front-end developers and interactive designers. These new employees collaborate with our reporters and with our sales staff to create highly interactive multimedia stories and advertisements in a whole new way.

Due to these seismic shifts in our business, we now have a workforce that is two-thirds millennial, and they make up the vast majority hired in the last decade or less. It’s been a fast change.

We had to revamp our HR team and develop a deep centre of expertise around recruiting and training. That means a whole new way of attracting, compensating, and engaging people. It also means developing leaders who are more participative. Leaders who don’t dictate; they coach. They nurture talent.

We have to do all of these things quickly because media today is experiencing an ongoing tsunami of change. The biggest thing for us as an HR group is to stay nimble and agile. The impact of future disruptive technologies is impossible to predict. What was a disruptor last year is being disrupted this year. The key in our industry today is to focus on what you can control and be ready to respond and change plans when required. So HR is kept busy leading continual change. Organization charts that in the past would have remained constant for years now have a half-life of months. In some cases, we’ve had to quickly build whole new teams in a matter of weeks, such as our new interactive ad studio. We need to experiment, learn quickly, pivot where needed, and move on.

We truly see ourselves at a crossroads. We’ve moved from a product-driven newspaper company, to a multi-platform news media company that is fundamentally audience-driven. Our success relies on our ability to create compelling content that attracts and engages a diverse set of audiences, thereby providing an appealing platform for our advertising clients.

For us, Star Touch represents a fundamental turning point, but it certainly won’t be the last one. We see it as hugely significant because it has provided us with an opportunity to really up our game at telling stories on screens. The tablet is today’s screen, along with mobile and desktop devices. Our goal is to use each platform to reach a unique audience along with our traditional print audience. Tomorrow we may be telling stories on new and different screens, everything from smart TV’s to holographs to screens in driverless cars. We don’t know what the future will bring. But we’ll be there to deliver news and tell great stories, and we can’t wait.

5 QUESTIONS WITH BRIAN DALY

What does innovation mean to your company?
Innovation can be large or small. It involves a new or different approach to accomplishing something.  We’ve had considerable success learning from innovators in other markets and industries and then adapting these experiences to our own circumstances.

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
Innovation doesn’t have to be a transformative “eureka moment”. There’s a place for that, but a lot of innovation comes out of day-to-day activities.  The people involved in doing the work are often the best innovators if encouraged and supported.

Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next 5 years?
My personal hope is we can find new ways to get our important and compelling content in front of a broad audience base.  We live in a very busy world and we must continually create new ways to get heard among the cacophony.

How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
Our approach, which has served us well, is to foster an environment where talented people feel they are part of a winning team, a success story.   A place where people feel that what they are doing is making a difference in the world.  And then, you stand out of the way and let human beings do what they do naturally: innovate.

How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
Innovation is about unleashing what’s already there. If you don’t have money to start new things, maybe figure out what current things are impeding innovation and eliminate those things.  You might even reduce cost in the process.