On Sept. 8, the already crowded Toronto newspaper market will find another brash young comer in its midst. T.o.night will be premiere as an ultra compact (8.5 inches by 10.5 inches), glossy (38-lb coated), free afternoon (yes, afternoon) paper that aims to provide commuters with an information fix as they squeeze into streetcars, subways and GO trains for the ride home.
And if that banner looks rather retro, well . . . exactly. It’ll be a bit of a throwback to the heady days of afternoon newspapers, gone lo these many years, complete with news hawkers on street corners squawking out the day’s top story. And that crescent moon — a little reminiscent of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, no?
The publication’s investors, who include St. Joseph Communications (publishers of Toronto Life, Wedding Bells, etc.), Richard Costley-White (owner of Blackburn Radio Inc. and a former publisher of The London Free Press) and a number other private individuals, think they’ve spotted a marketing opportunity here: Deliver to advertisers the option of a glossy product that can be held in one hand by the hordes of commuters exiting Toronto’s downtown on weeknights, thinking about the evening ahead. The initial press run will be about 100,000.
Whether T.o.night’s target audience will indeed roll their eyeballs over the pages of a print product, instead of scrolling the latest headlines on their BlackBerrys, iPhones or other handheld devices, remains to be seen. But editor-in-chief Jodi Isenberg, a veteran of both staid and scrappy forms of newspapering, is naturally excited by the startup’s prospects.
A graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism school, Isenberg spent 12 years in various editorial capacities at the Toronto Sun before joining the Toronto freebie Metro in 2001. She rose to the post of that tabloid’s EIC, helping launch its Vancouver and Ottawa editions in 2005, as well as Calgary and Edmonton editions in 2007. Within weeks of leaving Metro in 2008, she landed a one-year contract at The Globe and Mail, most of it spent as deputy production editor alongside night news editor Ryan MacDonald. When that contract expired, she was picked up by the Toronto Star on a summer contract, where she could be found until about a week ago. Now, she’s working alongside publisher John Cameron, director of operations Tom Hyde and director of distribution Gareth Smith to ensure the success of T.o.night’s launch.
Detractors of the new venture are eager to point out that afternoon freebies in Hogtown have been tried and failed before; that the time lag between editorial deadlines and distribution through boxes at subway stops and hoarse street hawkers, no matter how tight, is no match for electronic information delivery to handheld devices, and that Toronto’s downtown commuting sophisticates will be easily bored by hours-old Canadian Press copy, TMZ-type newsfeatures and the occasional column.
None of which fazes Isenberg, who envisions a companion website down the road. For now, though, she’s focused on the impending rollout. “It’s a really great concept. I think we’ve got a really good shot at reaching people who, just like the morning commuters, are captive. They’re sitting there, they want something to look at,” Isenberg said. “It feels really right. It feels like it’ll be a great success.”
Update (Sept. 29): See CBC Metro Morning business analyst Michael Hlinka’s commentary on T.o.night here.