Dispatches

Live From e-G8 in Paris: Newspaper Titans Talk Digital Death

It’s Day Two at the e-G8 tech summit in Paris, and the main event is a standing-room-only panel about disintermediation, “Is the Internet Relaunching or Killing the Media?”, featuring Arthur Sulzberger of The New York Times and Robert Thomson of The Wall Street Journal.

Interestingly enough, from the audience’s perspective, Mr. Sulzberger is sitting to the left of Mr. Thomson, and he to the right of him.

The line of questioning has been predictable: Here comes the web encroaching on traditional media business models–how do you tame it for your own financial ends?

Mr. Sulzberger, on his first answer, chose to emphasize the connection that the Old Gray Lady has with its long-time print subscribers, never mind the web.

“Print circulation is not going away,” he said. “What we’re seeing and what I think everyone is seeing is an erosion in single-copy sales. For core subscribers to print–and those are people who have received home delivery for two years or more–our studies show that if you are a home delivery subscriber to The New York Times for two years or more, we pretty much have you for life. And that number’s been going up. That number four or five years ago was 650,000 people. That number today is almost 840,000 people. That is an enormously stable base from which to continue to leverage our journalistic activities.”

Sulzberger and Thomson on How Newspapers Online Are Like Rushing Water

Mr. Sulzberger was later asked to project The Times’ business models a few years down the road. He demurred and then plunged into an analogy.

“I don’t know if any of you are river rafters,” he said, “but it’s one of the sports that I most enjoy. And if you’ve done it, you know that if you come around the turn you know that the most dangerous thing you can do is say, ‘oh, the next turn is to the left’ or ‘the next rapids are to the right.’ If you don’t stay flexible and united on your team, you’re going to find yourself making the wrong call and going down the wrong way.”

Soon it was Robert Thomson’s turn. The Wall Street Journal managing editor and Dow Jones chief, in response to a question on the overall strategy regarding the paper’s recent expansions (Greater New York, the magazine, et al), cited the Journal’s rise in ad revenues and its pay model–one paywall, many things on the other side of it–and then ankled toward Mr. Sulzberger’s analogical territory.

“There are two basic trends at work in our world: digitization and globalization,” Mr. Thomson said. “And if you raft with those currents, you’ll be carried a long way. If you attempt to swim against them, you won’t get anywhere.”

Betabeat then split for the bathroom. Kidding!

The first-ever e-G8 summit wraps tonight. Our previous coverage is here

tacitelli@observer.com :: @tacitelli

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