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."