Do national newspapers have a future and if so, what is it? If any of the commercial managers, advertising managers and marketing people making up the bulk of the audience at this morning's seminar on the Future of National Newspapers was hoping for a clear answer they'd have left disappointed.
Panellists, including News International commercial MD Paul Hayes and Guardian managing director Tim Brooks, agreed that the traditional print newspaper model was dead and that the industry needed a new approach. But what? As Brooks said: "There's incredible excitement and challenge in the industry we're in. We need to make a transition to a new model...but I'm hoping to get some suggestions from the floor to find out what this new model is."
The future may be online but the big sticking point, as the industry's been saying for years, is how to make it pay. Media analyst Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, also on the panel, produced figures showing that the value of a newspaper reader to a publisher is £155 (made up of £65 generated from advertising and £90 from newspaper purchase) while an online user is worth just £5 a year in advertising and nothing in purchases, because online content is free.
And as if that wasn't bad enough news for online enthusiasts, Enders revealed that users went on news websites for an average of just 10 minutes a month, while readers spent 12 hours a month reading print newspapers (a confusing statistic for those who thought no-one read newspapers any more).
Readers who do engage online can generate great stories and information for journalists prepared to work with them, argued Brooks of the Guardian. Guardian journalists have a total of 900,000 people following them on Twitter and they supply material for stories which journalists either couldn't get or would take too long to get. Unfortunately, the Guardian hasn't yet figured out a way to make money from this reader interactivity.
What publishers like News International would of course like to do is to start charging people to access their websites. NI's Paul Hayes declined to discuss the company's plans to set up a separate Sunday Times website and charge for it, repeating Murdoch's formula that it was reasonable to charge a "fair price" and to "value content". But the Times would have the same problem doing that as the Guardian. The company would "never" charge for access to news on its website, said Tim Brooks, partly for the pragmatic reason that if it did, readers would just go to free news, namely from the BBC, featherbedded by the licence fee.
Stalemate. Maybe the notoriously competitive newspaper industry should fling caution to the winds and follow media journalist Ray Snoddy's suggestion that they should actually collaborate. Snoddy, also on the seminar panel, urged newspapers to think "outside the box" and introduce subscription cards, along the lines of an oyster card, which would be good for accessing any news website. Watch this space. PCs may come equipped with swipe readers in 10 years' time.