Torstar is growing digital subscriptions with focus on 5 simple OKRs


The insights shared below are the product of a special masters session of the GNI Subscriptions Lab, where we invite expert practitioners from among the ten participants, or from other organizations, to speak on a key important topic relevant to subscriptions success. 

As local news publishers investigate, transition to, and expand digital subscription models, the road leading to sustained business success is still under construction.

At Torstar Corp., newsrooms are turning to data for solutions. Specifically, a simple, but effective management strategy concept: OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, that allow newsrooms to focus on important, well-defined data points.

In April, Torstar was named one of 10 newspaper partners to participate in the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab. In partnership with Local Media Association and FTI Consulting, the lab is an ambitious program focused on finding a path forward for reader revenue strategies.

Torstar — whose media operations are divided into three primary divisions: Daily News Brands, Community Brands, and Digital Ventures — is focusing on building its newsrooms around the metrics-centric approach of OKRs.

Torstar’s Daily News Brands segment includes the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily print newspaper, and thestar.com, one of the most-visited newspaper websites in Canada. Its platforms use a mix of locked content only available to subscribers and metered paywalls. Its portfolio also includes The Hamilton Spectator, the Waterloo Region Record, the St. Catharines Standard, the Niagara Falls Review, the Welland Tribune, and the Peterborough Examiner.

Fredric Karen, senior vice president of editorial at Torstar, is tasked with creating data-driven and data-centric newsrooms across all of Torstar’s properties. His primary focus is driving growth in digital subscriptions.

Karen, who began at Torstar earlier this year, implemented OKRs across newsrooms as his first project and shared insight during a recent GNI Subscriptions Lab cohort meeting.

“One of the first things I was told was that ‘we have a lot of data coming in from the data team, but we don’t know what to look at,’” Karen said. “We didn’t know what is actionable and what our focus area should be.”

The first step for Karen was to create target-setting frameworks for all the Torstar newsrooms to focus on important data points as OKRs. These are defined as:

  • Objective: “Where do we need to go?”
  • Key Result: “What is our focus area to get there?”
  • Target: “How will we know when we’re there?”

To help newsrooms focus on the data points that matter, Karen and his team decided to identify and define five objectives: digital position in the market, traffic, journalism that puts the customer first, local brand objective, and subscriptions. Each objective could have a number of key results.

“I wanted to keep it very simple,” Karen said. “Newsrooms are stressed and can struggle with data, they should have a simple process and template to use and to work with.”

Here are OKR examples:

Objective: Become an entirely subscription-funded newsroom
Key Result: Create “content buckets” based on data
Target: X monthly new subscribers from hard locked articles

Objective: Same as above*
Key Result: Higher readership from subscribers
Target: Grow the number of page views from subscribers from x to y by the end of the year

“We all know in newsrooms there are a lot of priorities,” Karen said. “I wanted each newsroom in Torstar to focus on these specific things in 2019.”

Establishing newsroom OKRs allowed Karen and his team to align strategy with other departments in the company such as marketing, product and data teams. The implementations of OKRs across Torstar newsrooms has allowed the teams to:

  • Understand their priorities
  • Have creative and fruitful discussions around journalism and innovation in newsrooms
  • Create more goal-oriented newsrooms
  • Help everyone better understand how each local strategy is aligned with the overall Torstar strategy

“OKRs are an opportunity to show in one place, one snapshot, who you are as a newsroom in terms of both business and values, with a monthly check-in on how you are living up to those goals,” said Irene Gentle, editor in chief, The Toronto Star. “It helps keep you ambitious and honest, and prevents the many other distractions of daily work from obscuring the fundamental vision.”

The outline for a standard OKRs worksheet is below. Objectives and key results could vary newsroom to newsroom and should align with overall company objectives.

Following the roll-out at Torstar, action steps are underway to ensure momentum continues.

Torstar has conducted workshops across all its newsrooms, and each has assigned a point person to collect and follow up on results each month. From there, each quarter Torstar leaders analyze the data.

“The OKR process has helped focus staff on what matters,” said Paul Berton, editor in chief, The Hamilton Spectator. “It forces all of us to keep an eye on data and continually review what we are doing with an eye to exactly what readers want, and what will help make our news agency a habit.”

As media publications continue to struggle to survive, Karen acknowledges that the financial situation has helped form staff buy-in and embracing of data throughout the newsroom.

A rough financial situation has actually led to more buy-in, Karen said.

“The financial situation has helped. People are expecting change.”

This report was produced as part of Accelerate Local, dedicated to reinventing business models for news.