Mostly Softballs for NYT’s Sulzberger, Robinson at BusinessWeek Media Summit

NYT Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., spoke on the keynote panel at the BusinessWeek media summit.

Anyone hoping to get some good dirt on The New York Times‘ business operations would’ve left this morning’s BusinessWeek Media Summit panel with Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and CEO Janet Robinson feeling sorely disappointed.

The keynote discussion, held at the McGraw-Hill building in Manhattan and moderated by BusinessWeek Assistant Managing Editor Jim Ellis, only briefly touched on topics of great interest like Carlos Slim’s sizable stake in Times Co. Another pressing matter, The Wall Street Journal‘s forthcoming Metro section, viewed by many as a direct attack on the Times, was never mentioned.

After the audience filed out, one reporter said to FishbowlNY, “What a blowjob.”

A brief spark emerged during the audience Q&A session at the end of the meeting, when someone asked how the Times was going to get consumers to adapt to a metered subscription system, expected to roll out in early 2011.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily as hard to change the consumer mindset as you think it might be,” said Sulzberger. He said the most loyal Times readers will take to the metered model.

“We should be giving a little more credit to the consumer in regard to their judgment as to what is quality and what is not,” said Robinson. “That journalism is expensive and it has to be paid for.”

While moderating the panel, Ellis did briefly ask about the Times Co.’s ownership structure, alluding to Carlos Slim’s substantial stake in the company, and asking the pair how they felt about outsiders who want to participate in the company.

“There’s a term we have for outsiders who want to participate in The New York Times Company. We call those shareholders,” Sulzberger quipped. He also said that the company has had two classes of stock since it went public, and that shareholders in the Times Co. believe in what management is doing.

The two-class system means that Class B shares, controlled in large part by the Sulzberger family, exercise voting power on important decisions, whereas publicly available Class A shares do not entitle their owners to vote on decisions.

On Carlos Slim, Sulzberger said, “We are delighted to have Carlos as a major investor in The New York Times Company. He’s invested because he believes in the mission.”

For the most part, the discussion centered on the Times’ long-term transition from newspaper company to online multimedia company, how the Times was weathering the recession, and the importance of mobile distribution.

Most of Suulzberger and Robinson’s answers were fairly pat. On negotiating new technologies and online competitors, Sulzberger said, “At the end of the day, we can’t define ourselves by our method of distribution.” He acknowledged the iPad and Kindle as important pieces of technology for the future, and drew a distinction between sites that fairly use the Times‘ content while linking back to their sources and sites that merely copy entire Times stories onto their servers.

On adapting to the recession, Robinson said, “You’ve seen us lower the cost base in a careful way to continue to invest in our journalism,” and, “We have divested properties that are not core to the company.” During the entire session, she frequently said “utilize,” and “from a ___ perspective.”