Panel discussion of newspaper business model generates plenty of questions, few answers

The final day of the 2010 Ink and Beyond conference opened early with a panel discussion among four financial experts who weighed in on what a new business model might look like as the newspaper industry transforms and moves forward.

Jonathan GOodman and Jerry Brown participate in a panel discussion on the final day of the 2010 Ink and Beyond conference. The panel, which consisted of Duncan Stewart, director of Deloitte Canada Research, Jerry Brown, associate partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Jonathan Goodman, senior partner at Monitor Group, and moderator Ken Wong, Queen’s University fellow and marketing consultant, fielded questions on everything from pay walls and advertising to citizen journalism and CEOs – all submitted from the 150-member audience via text message.

Before getting to the questions, the panellists took a moment to summarize what they think a new business model ought to consider.

For Stewart, the primary consideration is technological. He said the impact of tablets, smartphones and netbooks can’t be underestimated – papers must stay on top of where the online industry is heading.

“Print will be here to stay for decades, if not centuries,” he said. “The unquestioned view is that more and more people are going to be consuming media of all types on electronic devices.” If that’s the case, he added, it’s imperative for newspapers to be aware of what sort of devices those are and how to move content in ways that are consistent with their usage.

Goodman, on the other hand, thinks a new business model must focus more on the economy. He said the dramatic structural shifts within the industry have been exacerbated by the recession, making readers and advertisers a moving target.

“The challenge,” he said, “is that the economic underpinnings of the business are blowing apart.”

He acknowledged some points of resilience within the industry, namely strong brand presence and the power to disseminate information, but said those attributes aren’t enough – the economic models underlying newspapers simply have to change.

Similarly for Brown, it’s the industry’s relationship with advertisers that’s being overlooked. He said newspapers need to start recognizing that they’re not the only ones struggling – advertisers and their agencies are facing similar problems.

His suggestion was for newspapers to put a larger effort into partnering with advertisers to “bring value and promote products.”

The panellists fielded questions for more than an hour, yet by discussion’s end, little consensus had been reached about what form a new business model will take.

The session, it seemed, yielded plenty of Qs, yet few definitive As.

At the end of the day, however, there was one thing the speakers did agree on:

“If you’re looking for an answer as to what the future business model is for newspapers, I think I can safely summarize the panel’s comments as, ‘it depends’,” said Wong. “And if you’re wondering what it depends on, maybe the simplest thing to do is to go back to journalism 101 and ask yourself the basic questions we train every reporter to ask – Who are we selling to? What are we selling? Where are we selling it? Why are we selling it? And how do we sell it? – I think if you do that, you’ll be able to set a context for finding an answer.”