TorStar Wants You

Late last night, I received an interesting email.  Blogger Fading To Black informed me that TorStar, the parent company of flagship newspaper, The Toronto Star, was about to make a major push for “reader input” in a number of its newspapers. 
On the one hand, FTB thought it might be a cynical campaign to increase advertising revenue (the establishment of “buying patterns”, for instance).  But then again, it might be a worthwhile venture worth looking into.
Sure enough, in today’s Toronto Star, there’s an article asking for readers to participate in something called The Star Advisers.  In the bottom right hand corner of page A16 of today’s Hamilton Spectator, there’s a similiar piece requesting reader participation for its own “new readership advisory panel” which they call The Spec Advisers.
I’m very cynical about this.  If you visit and/or, you’ll notice this in the bottom right hand corner of that informational rectangle:  “Powered By VisionCritical”. 
What is VisionCritical?  It’s an online marketing research company that’s been around for 7 years.  When you check out their history, your cynicism grows.  On the “Our Story” page, if you look to the left of your screen and scroll down a smidgen, you’ll notice something disturbing.  VisionCritical is associated with organizations like The National Retail Federation and The American Marketing Association, among a few others.
Essentially, TorStar thinks that recruiting readers for focus groups is the key to getting their newspapers, particular the struggling Star, back on track.  I don’t know about you but I hate focus groups.  I hate groupthink in general, particularly when it is espoused by editorial boards.  I value individual opinions more because they tend to be more accurate and persuasive than anything an editorial army could offer.
It’s nice that the company is realizing that it needs to make some changes.  But is this the solution? 
For me, it doesn’t take a focus group to realize that the number one concern of any newspaper reader is accountability.  That means reporting stories as accurately as possible within a very tight deadline.  That also means printing opinions that are free of libel and slander.  Furthermore, accountability means correcting the record when you screw up.  Far too often, most especially in The Toronto Sun, glaring errors that are brought to the attention of the paper go uncorrected.  (As a recent example, I emailed Bill Harris, one of The Sun’s Entertainment Critics, to inform him that there was a mistake in a photo caption that accompanied his story on a new Rolling Stone reality show.  The caption said that the bearded guy standing in the middle of a small group of contestants was Executive Editor Joe Levy.  It wasn’t.  It was Jann Wenner, the founder of the magazine.  I never heard a reply.  And, as far as I know, it hasn’t been corrected in the print version of the paper.  The Sun still doesn’t have a Corrections section on its website.)
The next big concerns of readers are accessibility and subjects of interest.  Whether you prefer the tabloid format to broadsheets (and I certainly do), readers want to be able to find their favourite sections immediately.  Pullouts are popular which is one of the reasons readers love broadsheets.  If you want to read about sports, pull out that section and there it is.  Very convenient.  Even tabloids offer them on certain days of the week. 
Sun readers are big on well-written crime stories which is one of the reasons Max Haines is much missed.  (He wrote all those popular crime flashback articles.)  What they don’t want, as ex-Sun reporter John Cosway noted on his Toronto Sun Family blog not too long ago, are more stories about that evil bimbo, Paris Hilton.  (When has The Sun, or any newspaper for that matter, not reported on her chronic stupidity?)
But what readers truly loathe are big, noticeable changes that inconvenience them.  Moving The Sunshine Girl from Page 3 to the back of the newspaper.  Relocating the Entertainment section to the back instead of offering a daily pullout.  Cutting down the workload of popular columnists (or firing them altogether) and offering mediocre replacements.  Not always printing email addresses of reporters, critics and columnists.  Secretly terminating Readership and Public Editors.  These are the types of changes people hate.
TorStar doesn’t need to pay a company to survey readers who sign up for their advisory groups.  They’re unnecessary since those same readers already offer their opinions freely through phone calls, emails, letters and faxes.  When the people speak, shouldn’t newspapers listen?
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, January 13, 2007
4:32 p.m.
Published in: on January 13, 2007 at 4:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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