So who do we lock in the room with a whiteboard and a laptop…

…to figure out the answer to the $4.5 billion question: “What’s the new business model for newspapers?”

At last night’s Who Needs Ink? panel discussion, everyone punted on that question, but Jerry Ceppos (to my delight) again insisted that newspapers need to stop screwing around and devote a large chunk of their staff to the online product. I’m not sure that’s a business model (in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not), but it’s a step in the right direction.

Ceppos has been the “Editor in Residence” at the SJSU School of Journalism & Mass Communications, leading a series of discussions with students, faculty, and staff about the various issues facing newspapers. Photojournalism student and Online Editor at the Spartan Daily, Shaminder Dulai, has some thoughts on some of what Ceppos had to say this semester:

Ceppos was asking us for ideas, but he was also commenting on those ideas, discussing those ideas, and reflecting on his newspaper past and discussing how what we are suggesting would fit into the future of media and how it can be used in newspapers. More importantly he discussed how all the things we were suggesting are doable and then tried to explain why it is not being done.

I liked his approach. I personally don’t like the dry behind the podium one-sided “talk at you” speakers that come through SJSU every week, and during my time as a photographer on the Spartan Daily I covered more than my share of these. Ceppos tried to get the crowd actively involved with the discussion and that is perfectly in keeping with the ideas he was trying to get across.

The future of media and newspapers is like Ceppos speech. An interactive, “talk with you” ever-evolving, changing on the fly according you your feedback, revolutionary in delivery, and unique take on a classic traditional style.

Shaminder’s right: The conversation about the changing newspaper needs to reflect what we’d like the finished product to look like, and vice versa.

So who do we lock in the room? Certainly studied old hands like Ceppos belong in the conversation, as well as current editors, advertising directors, and staffers.

But what about readers?

In comments on my post about last night’s talk, Janet DeGeorge writes: “There is NO conversation going on including all parties, everyone is assuming…heck, there wasn’t even a READER involved in your conversation”

It’s a good point – Newspapers need to engage their readers to find out what they really want. That was part of the discussion last night, although no one went into great detail about how to do that. Ceppos had talked previously about listening to readers, and I’m the first one to cheerlead for things like Editor Blogs and forums where readers can participate in discussions about what they think their local paper should do.

Part of me wants to ask “But what about the readers who aren’t online?” but another part of me finds it simpler to just say “Deal with the opinion leaders and the rest will fall into place.”

What do you think? Who should be in on this conversation? Everybody? Probably, but who do you think is specifically missing from the conversation?

Listen to your readers

Last night at SJSU’s King Library, former Knight Ridder chief news executive Jerry Ceppos made a few points that brought together a few things I’ve been rambling on about lately:

  1. Newspapers need to jump into the online world with both feet. Take the governor off the engine and start devoting a larger percentage of your staff to creating and editing content for the Web.
  2. Newspapers need to communicate with their readers, and the Web is the easiest way to do it. Newspapers need to talk with readers about why they do what they do, and what decision-making processes go into putting together a big story. This is part of building trust.
  3. Most of newspapers’ new readers and new profits are coming from online

Here’s a great example of a newspaper website that’s giving readers a chance to voice their views on opinion pieces by way of a group blog where all the regular newspaper columnists, plus many special guests (think Huffington Post) can and will blog on their own time, with comments flowing freely, including links to Technorati trackbacks. It’s from the Guardian, and it’s called Comment Is Free.

There are even links on each user comment to report it as “offensive” or “unsuitable.”

This is a great way to create a real live public forum, without confusing reporting on fact with expression of opinion. Let your readers easily add their own voices to your opinion pages, and you might build a site that they want to come back to.

[UPDATE: Oh, and of course, there’s an Editors’ Blog on the Guardian site. From its sidebar: “The Editors’ blog is a daily account of the process of editing the Guardian and Guardian Unlimited. It covers how editorial decisions are made, the events and discussions that take place and how the editorial side of the organisation works.”]