What a free daily should do for a city

Michael HlinkaMichael Hlinka, business analyst for CBC’s southern Ontario morning show Metro Morning, discusses the viability of t.o.night, yet another freebie commuter paper in Toronto.

First, things first. I have tremendous respect for anyone who steps up and tries to establish his or her own business. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit, that damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead mentality that leads to spectacular triumphs…and stunning defeats. There’s a wonderful line from Teddy Roosevelt praising “the man who is actually in the arena” as opposed to the “cold and timid souls of critics” that I couldn’t agree with more.  

That duly noted, I come to the table as the critic, not the man in the arena. I’ve been asked to talk about the economic viability of Toronto’s new free afternoon newspaper, t.o.night. But rather than focus on whether or not it will be viable – because I honestly can’t say – what I would prefer to do is discuss what I think it should do to give itself at least a puncher’s chance of making it in a very competitive market.

The question that comes to mind off the top is whether or not Toronto needs another free daily. It already has two that have positioned themselves to meet the information and entertainment needs of the commuting public. Those are both “morning” as opposed to “afternoon” papers, but I wonder how much this really matters – by itself, it strikes me that this isn’t enough to ensure survival.

Let’s talk about the established players briefly. We don’t know how profitable – or unprofitable – Metro and 24 Hours are as stand-alone ventures. They are published by, respectively, the same groups that put out the Toronto Star and the Sun. This leads to efficiencies in production. But it has also led to cannibalization of sales. The paid circulation for both of those papers has flat-lined while the population of Toronto continues to grow.

And t.o.night steps into the fray, further fragmenting an already fragmented market.
There’s something more than a little bit ironic about the use of the descriptive term newspaper in a digital era. You take the word apart and what you get is that which is new, or news, delivered in a paper format. There’s a problem with that in the Internet age. If it has to be written, then printed, then distributed, it’s no longer particularly new. It would be so much more accurate to call what we see oldspapers, because this is what we’re really getting. To me, this is an important point to note.  Because if t.o.night explicitly recognizes this fact, it might not end up chasing its own tail. Rather, it might discover editorial more relevant to its audience.  

Let’s start with its target market: What are commuters thinking about on their way home from work? Dinner is one thing. What to do that night is another? As well, I’m sure that many people are reflecting on their day at work, perhaps pondering a career change or something along those lines.

Terrific. So now we know what should drive content. I saw that CityTV had taken the inside front cover with an ad for the Jay Leno show. Right on. But what I didn’t see inside t.o.night was a column that talked about what was on last night’s show. In the same way that a sports fan, such as myself, enjoys reading about the previous day’s game that I have already experienced, it seems to me that there is the same opportunity to connect with the talk-show watching audience. And, of course, this is true for any and all content that would be on television that night.  

Everyone riding the subways, buses and GO Trains at five o’clock is soon going to be having dinner. I think an interesting advertorial opportunity exists to print daily recipes, sponsored by one of the major food chains. It would be possible, it seems to me, to tailor those recipes to weekly specials. And finally, the loop could be closed by some kind of couponing that would encourage readers to actively seek out daily copies of t.o.night to tangibly benefit from picking up the paper.

Because this, it seems to me, is the highest hurdle that any paper must clear. Are you delivering a product that your market will go out of its way to pick up?  It strikes me that the truly spectacular newspaper and magazine success stories figure this out – and here I’m thinking of publications as different and diverse as Playboy, Rolling Stone, the Economist and People.  

There’s something that those magazines have that t.o.night doesn’t enjoy and that’s a focused target market. The commonalities for people who pick up t.o.night must be broader. But it seems to me that they do exist – I’d like to think I’ve identified them. And if I haven’t or they can be defined more perfectly, so be it.

I hope t.o.night succeeds and it deserves to succeed precisely to the extent that it meets a need in the marketplace.

Michael Hlinka reports on business issues of the day for CBC’s Metro Morning radio program. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and is a CFA charterholder. He is on the faculty at George Brown College’s financial planning department.