It is too easy to dismiss AR as just another fad that newspapers are experimenting with to attract new, younger audiences. What is more significant is the leap of faith these newspapers are taking. In the current climate, it takes this kind of innovative spirit and fearlessness to try something new. And that is the key to the future of journalism in Canada. 

By Robert Washburn, innovation editor

The Toronto Star’s use of augmented reality (AR) technology last week was one of several experiments by Canadian newspaper publishers over the past year to enhance traditional print media, opening doors to new experiences for readers, new audiences and new advertisers.

In the face of doom and gloom predictions about the future of printed newspapers, it is a bold move to see publishers working hard to be innovative. The dominance of digital formats on computers, smart phones and tablets appears to be driving the current trends in the news industry.

Digital first protocols are a growing focus of nearly all newspapers, where the use of social media, online publishing and traditional methods seem to be the hierarchy for distributing news. Static content in print editions no longer satisfies audiences in the face of the technological tsunami constantly crashing down on the industry.

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While there are still those who enjoy the traditional “ink-on-the-fingers” experience, the passivity is not a characteristic appreciated by younger audience, which newspapers need to attract. Mono-media is being replaced by multimedia.

Also, advertisers are moving toward interactive forms: Nissan is one of the first to utilize AR technology and it is anticipated more companies may choose to do the same.

Glacier Media, which owns numerous community newspapers across Western Canada and Ontario, including the Victoria’s Times Colonist, was the first to use AR in Canada within its lower mainland papers in British Columbia in February. This was followed by the Winnipeg Free Press launching its first AR edition on Sept. 4.Whereas the Toronto Star did a one-off 30-page experiment, the Free Press has committed to delivering every edition with augmented reality.

AR uses a smartphone’s camera to recognize a specific image—in the case of newspapers, it is the text or image on the page—and then superimposes information over the camera feed. Next, the technology opens related links and content within its app. (This is very different than QR codes, the black and white squares that are often compared to AR. QR codes connect to links on mobile web browsers, not standalone content. In some circles, QR codes are considered passé, even dead technology.)

Newspapers in Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and the United States are already using AR technology.


The Metro, a free commuter newspaper, adopted it recently in its Boston, New York City and Philadelphia editions. And, the Los Angles Times used AR for its Olympic coverage.

Meanwhile, Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun is using AR to attract younger readers with kid-friendly versions of articles featuring animated characters and graphics, explanations of topics and pop-up headlines.

Talk About Local, a hyperlocal news project in the United Kingdom, offers community bloggers and newspapers free AR services, mainly to highlight local content through geo-tagging. By simply holding a smartphone or tablet in a particular location, buttons appears superimposed on the screen. Touch the button and news related to that particular location appears.

Critics argue AR is not useful because the additional content is often as static as the newspaper itself, going from one passive experience to another—say, looking at a photograph in the newspaper and then viewing another still image on a smartphone. However, proponents say the key is using relevant, dynamic and live information that is consistently updated.

Still, AR requires are lot of commitment from the user. People must download an app, take out the phone and hold it patiently over the paper until the codes are transferred. Then, if it does not work, they must try again. Compared to simply opening a newspaper and reading, there is a lot more involved. The question is: will audiences do this?

New hardware, like Google Glass, will make AR far easier to use, but this is not quite mainstream yet. The same promise holds true for the Sony SmartWatch, which will also pave the way for easy access.

For publishers, there is the promise of new revenue sources. Juniper Research expects AR mobile apps to generate almost $300 million (U.S.) this year. Arizona-based Semico Research predicts by next year 864 million smartphones will be AR-equipped and related revenues will reach $600 billion (U.S.) by 2016.

It is far too easy to dismiss these experiments, saying AR is just another fad as newspapers scramble to find a sustainable economic model, as well as attract new audiences. Adding a digital dimension to an otherwise passive medium is tantalizing.  Certainly, like any new application of technology, there will be early adopters. But, it is making AR a mainstream phenomenon that presents the greatest challenge.

What seems far more significant is the leap of faith these newspapers are taking. In the current climate, it takes this kind of innovative spirit and fearlessness to risk trying something new. And, that is the key to the future of journalism in Canada.

Waiting for other newspapers elsewhere in the world to provide a path is not a sound approach. What works for one company does not always for another. Just look at the uneven success of paywalls to get a flavour for the uncertainty of new tactics.

There are no silver bullets to solve the problems of shrinking audiences, dropping revenues and ever-changing technology. And the solutions will not be singular either. It will be a combination of factors, new products, new approaches and new ideas paving the path. AR is one stone along the way.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.