Two years ago, board membership to the American Society of News Editors wasn't even open to online publications. Last year, their annual conference was scrapped entirely as newsroom belts tightened.
But this year, veteran newspaper editors from around the country packed a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. to hear from online publishers why they shouldn't fear the reaper. They came to hear panels on publishing for e-readers, considering government subsidies, and keeping afloat with a skeleton-crew staff in the 24/7 news cycle.
They even (for the most part) politely listened Tuesday to Arianna Huffington talk up her mammoth site's aggregation-based model—something still seen as a major threat by traditional papers. But Huffington's lede appealed to the roomful of reporters in varying stages of employment: Stories are still what readers want. They may come for entertainment gossip, but they stay for news that they didn't otherwise know to look for. Aggregation allows a publication to centralize more information and present the bigger picture, she said, and that allows for context no traditional publication can match.
She pointed to the Huffington Post's coverage of the West Virginia mine collapse—which an editor from the Morgantown, West Va., Dominion Post noted was done without HuffPo reporters on the ground.
But Huffington warned the editor not to hate the players in this new game. Linking to small papers gives them major traffic, she said. It's then their responsibility to "monetize" the opportunity.
The Huffington Post's citizen journalism initiative tells a similar new-media tale. The project has produced some great, personal stories on how the recession is hitting people all over the country. But it takes advantage of free content by "citizen bloggers"—an industry trend laid-off local reporters may find increasingly exasperating.
"We would have needed hundreds of reporters all over the country to get those stories," Huffington said.
She said this type of reporting is really a new form of reader entertainment and media engagement.
"People ask, why would someone tweet or write for no money," she said. "But no one's asking why they are watching seven hours of bad T.V. a day for no money."
Whether you call the HuffPo's model threatening, opportunist or groundbreaking, it's certainly working—at least from the point of view of struggling newspapers. New York Times columnist David Carr said HuffPo has "the tools of the insurgency" into the new media landscape, and media institutions like the New York Times are trying to keep up.
"Arianna is marching toward us, we are marching toward her. But we are at a disadvantage because we don't have a source of free content," Carr said.
But even if newspaper publishers feel lost in the online wilderness, they had better learn some survival tactics quickly, said James M. Brady, Digital Editorial Consultant for Allbritton Communications, which owns Politico and will soon be launching a new D.C.-based local-news site.
In terms of keeping a news outlet solvent and relevant, Brady said, those tactics might not include the much moaned-about content paywall.
Brady said paywalls could be "more on the side of folly than fix," successful in the short term while stunting the growth of more radical approaches to finding support streams for content. Instead, he said, publishers of all forms of media should be looking at what reader will pay for, not what they should.
The answer there is mobile content, says Brady. People will pay to access things through apps when they are disconnected from their laptops, according to Brady, capturing an audience far beyond the half-hour at breakfast that a newspaper can keep their attention. This is where development energy and dollars should be spent.
A later panel debated whether some of those dollars could come from government subsidies—but don't call it a "bailout."
Frank A. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, argued that government support would take control of the media out of the hands of "the elite"—large corporate owners that exert control over content.
"Bankers are poised to become the major owners of our newspapers and broadcast," he said. We are seeing...a chill over whether you're going to write stories your employer is not going to like."
But the question of how far the government's arm would reach into journalism is, of course, troublesome. Susan S. DeSanti, director of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning office, said that an outright "bailout" for newspapers was unlikely, but that government funding could remove expensive barriers to accessing information for journalists.
"We certainly don't want to bail out the current owners," she said. "But how can we lower the cost of journalism?"
John Nichols, a correspondent for The Nation, poked fun at the idea that any government involvement would reduce journalism to a state-run propaganda machine.
"Why don't we make comparisons to really scary places...like Norway, or Holland?" he joked, noting that those heavily subsided countries continue to have a healthy and competitive newspaper and broadcasting industry.
He said a government-supported "Write for America" program similar to Teach for America could be one way to give young journalists opportunities while covering issues in poorer parts of the country that often go unreported.
Blethen, a fourth-generation member of the family that founded The Seattle Times in 1896, said the concept of the newspaper itself isn't what's broken, the ownership model is. On that, anyone working in—or laid off from—the media industry might agree.
The backbone of the newspaper industry has always been relevant, local content that readers trust. Blethen and Brady might be disagree on what shape that will take in three years or five, but whatever is left standing will be the model that works.