Tonight relaunches website to service post-paywall readers
October 30, 2013 | Chris Powell | Comments
Toronto’s free evening newspaper Tonight is attempting to boost readership with a completely revamped web site. The four-year-old publication is hoping to woo readers of traditional dailies who may have abandoned their online products following the introduction of pay-walls.
“The timing is not a coincidence,” said Tonight publisher and co-founder John Cameron of the recent launch of the four-year-old publication’s new TonightNews.ca platform.
Cameron said once readers of other online news sites max-out the number of articles they can view for free and hit the paywall, many refuse to pay for more. “When they start looking elsewhere, we want to be there to service that market.”
Cameron said that paywalls make sense for publications offering original reporting and in-depth insights, such as The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, but noted that many people just want access to the day’s headlines without having to pay.
As a Canadian Press member, Tonight offers much of the same headline news content as its larger print brethren, said Cameron. The publication also has content agreements in place with the National Post (which supplies business news) and Sportsnet, while a team of approximately 10 freelancers and five full-time staff augment its local news coverage.
In development for eight months, the TonightNews.ca site has been completely rebuilt using responsive design from the Toronto-based mobile publishing platform Pressly. “Instead of building off a rotting foundation, we decided to start fresh,” said Cameron.
TonightNews.ca offers standard online ad units, as well as splash screens and takeover ads, but Cameron is particularly enthused about its video advertising. The unit has already proven popular with broadcaster advertisers looking to promote that evening’s prime time shows, he said.
“That’s where we’ve been paying for our investment,” said Cameron. “Video has been a real successful aspect for us from a revenue standpoint. It’s been a dramatic increase for us because of our cross-platform offering.”
Cameron said that TonightNews.ca’s video offering, which sources content from both Associated Press and Canadian Press, underscores the changing nature of the “newspaper” industry. “If you asked a newspaper 10 years ago if they’d be doing video, they would have said ‘That’s not our business.’ It needs to be if you consider yourself a content aggregator,” he said.
“When you’re a dominant force in the marketplace for over 100 years, that’s not the best industry to be in to quickly adjust to change,” Cameron added. “I think you need to move with the times and not consider yourself as a newspaper, but as a content provider.”
Print has actually become less of a focus for Tonight since it was acquired by Simcoe, Ont.-based Annex Business Publishing in January.
Adopting a strategy similar to U.S. publications such as the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, it scaled back its publishing schedule from five days a week to two (Tuesdays and Thursdays) shortly after it was acquired by Annex, with Cameron reasoning that some days – most notably Monday – don’t attract enough advertising to justify the cost of a press run.
Reader reaction was decidedly mixed when the change was first made, but Cameron’s previous role as a management consultant taught him the value of making changes quickly rather than incrementally. “You can’t do a slow drip,” he said. “You’ve got to rip off the band-aid and make the changes that are necessary.”
He said he has watched traditional publications maintain their print costs while simultaneously trying to layer in digital, with less than stellar results.
TonightNews.ca’s web traffic, meanwhile, has been growing by about 10% week-over-week since the formal re-launch earlier this month, and is now closing in on 100,000 page views per month said Cameron.
From an advertising standpoint, the site is proving popular with entertainment companies, particularly TV broadcasters, although financial services has been a growing category as more and more banks look to promote their mobile banking services.
Cameron said that a big part of the site’s success with readers and advertisers is the fact that two thirds of its traffic comes from GO Transit commuters who, unlike TTC users, have Internet access for the duration of their evening commute. “We’ve got the connection that makes it easy for them to respond to the ad,” he said. “It’s a factor of where they are when they’re reading.”