Star PM: Good on paper, but still a failure

Just over a year ago, with much fanfare, the Toronto Star launched a new service called “Star P.M.”, which was a dozen-page letter-sized PDF file that could be downloaded on weekday afternoons.

The idea was simple: Office workers would download the paper, which had afternoon updates of important stories, as well as things like Sudoku puzzles, print it out and take it with them on the ride home. There are certainly lots of people who take public transit to whom this might appeal.

And from some who fit that criteria there was initial praise of the project, which was the first of its kind in North America.

But there was also criticism with what now looks like keen foresight, pointing out that people won’t download as a PDF what they can get faster in HTML. And then there were numbers to back that point up.

And so it was, this week the Star announced it is killing Star P.M. to focus more on its mobile website, which is a format more friendly to the cellphone-toting workforce. The last issue will be Wednesday, October 17.

The format is what ultimately killed Star P.M. The Star underestimated the amount of effort involved in printing such a document every weekday. They overestimated how fast non-junkies need to get their news (busy workers could just wait until the next morning to read stories in the paper). They underestimated how much time news junkies would spend bored at work reading the paper’s website, or getting any news they cared about from their favourite blogs.

The new mobile website (“mobile version” is the new “non-Flash” or “low-bandwidth” — making me wonder why the rest of the website can’t have such a simple design) is a better way for the Star to spend its time. It updates faster and it’s much more interactive.

But what about the other PDF papers out there? The Ottawa Citizen has Rush Hour, which is still running. Other such papers in the U.S. and Europe have quietly shut down. Expect Rush Hour to have a similarly sad end.

You might also see obituaries being written for “Game Day” issues, which are special afternoon before-the-game downloadable PDFs with rosters, last-minute updates and other stuff the newspapers think you’ll want to take with you to the game. The Ottawa Citizen has one for Senators games, the Vancouver Sun just started one for Canucks games, and the Montreal Gazette runs one for Alouettes games. Considering these publications have even stricter audience limitations, I just can’t see them getting popular enough to support the work put into them.

There’s also G24, the PDF paper produced by the Guardian, which has the advantages of being somewhat customizable and more up-to-date because the PDFs are produced automatically. This also means that even if nobody reads it, it doesn’t cost the paper anything. Sure, it doesn’t have the newspaper-like modular layout, but is that really necessary in these kinds of circumstances?

By the end of the year, we’ll probably be able to conclude once and for all that these PDF papers are a failed experiment. But, as one blogger commented, at least it was an experiment. We have to at least give them that.

UPDATE (Jan. 9, 2008): The London Daily Telegraph has killed its “Telegraph PM” PDF paper. So I was off by a few days…

3 thoughts on “Star PM: Good on paper, but still a failure

  1. Neath

    I have to admit that the only PDF’s I will even consider opening are ones that I need for personal research. But when casually surfing I avoid them like the plague. Yes, they can make a very nice hard copy, but they are big and clumsy in a browser. I have come to believe that some organizations, such as the government, use them because it is technically public, but they know very few people will actually ever read 64 page PDFs, though, if you have plenty of ink to spare, you could print them out for later on. PDF’s are just a contradiction to what we want on the net.

  2. Fagstein Post author

    Well I don’t know about that. PDFs are just the easiest way of putting word-processing documents online, especially when they involve scanned pages, tables and other stuff.

    But I fully agree that PDFs are clunky on-screen. For that matter, these digital editions of newspapers share that clunkiness, and I can’t even download them as PDFs.

  3. Joseph Thornley

    Steve, thanks for putting the demise of Star PM in a broader context.

    Ottawa Citizen Rush Hour!?!? Wow. I live in Ottawa and I watch this scene pretty closely. Yet, I was totally unaware of the existence of Rush Hour.

    Could the experiment in PDF be doomed not simply because it’s an idea that serves no real need, but also because of anemic promotion by the publishers? What has CanWest done to promote Rush Hour in its home market?


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