Business model re-thinking and re-crafting is all the talk in the publishing industry these days. And rightfully so.

It is an urgent matter, as we now have run out of runway. We either take off or risk being grounded and relegated to irrelevancy.

A recent INMA blog post from Earl Wilkinson (“News publishers redefine innovation through investments in people, culture”), stirred some discussions within our own organisation. It revealed that some staff bear the scars of trying to innovate when the rest of the organisation was not aligned along the same axes of creativity and rate of change.

The culture that impedes innovation and radical change of current business models is puzzling. Surely, the opposite seems scarier: Shouldn’t we be afraid to continue following the old business models?

Along with long-standing business models come enduring assumptions. We need to modernise our understanding of what a sustainable business model entails.

Traditionally it has meant financial sustainability: Staffing, capital investment, and current operations are capable of turning a profit most or every fiscal year, thereby creating shareholder value.

Incoming executives, however, have more challenges ahead in the near-term because the old assumption that the Earth could provide endless resources — or that our atmosphere and environment could absorb waste and pollutants ad infinitum — is universally rejected.

As a result, we must expand our definition of “sustainable.”

Consider how capitalism is changing and how our concept of continuous growth measured via Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is being challenged. You might have come across such terminology as responsible capitalism, clean capitalism, new capitalism, or even capitalism 2.0. These new terms are attempts to name and include in a functioning business model the interests of other stakeholders, society, and our planet’s bio-diversity.


In September, I wrote that our industry participants are mostly absent from positions of leadership in sustainability. Here’s our golden opportunity to change that.

As we change our business models, let us consider and embrace truly sustainable business models – models that build not only shareholder value but also stakeholder value.

These models would allow for sustainable and profitable business activities while including humanity’s needs and the planet’s physical limits. We are already taking decisions in the right direction.

Here’s an example of how two competitors cooperated so as to change the newspaper delivery business model:

In 2012, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star combined their newspaper delivery forces and created a new company strictly for the purpose of delivering newspapers. The immediate benefits of economies of scale are glaringly obvious. 

Now the same driver carries both newspapers in his van. Routes can be more profitable and worthwhile for the carriers and are easier to manage.

Viewing this innovation through a sustainability lens, the respective publishing companies significantly reduced their carbon footprint. The positive environmental impact, however, was an incidental by-product of this change, apparent after implementation but not a motivating factor in the original decision to combine delivery.

In this case, the sustainability lens was used only post-execution. But as an industry, we need to view all decisions and policies, from proposition through to execution, through the lens of sustainability.

As we review sustainable business models, let’s ask ourselves several questions:

  • Can we ensure our business activities have positive impacts in the communities we operate?

  • Can we ensure our newsprint is not only recyclable but actually recycled?

  • Can we use more renewable energy to power our offices, computers, and data centres?

  • Do we participate in programmes that protect or restore our ecosystems?

Asking the right questions and being aware of these issues is the beginning. We should not fear leaving the old models behind. We can appreciate them for the financial benefits, guidance, and direction they provided to the publishing industry through many great decades.

Now is the time, however, to accept the new realities by endorsing and adopting new, more sustainable business models.