Well, the conference organizers made we news junkies wait until the end of the conference for the best panel of the conference. The Futureof Journalism: Who’s Going to Report the News? Speakers: Gordon Crovitz, Co-Founder, Journalism Online; former Publisher, The Wall Street Journal; Arianna Huffington, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief, The Huffington Post; Bill Keller, Executive Editor, The New York Times; Andrew Lack, CEO, Multimedia, Bloomberg LP; Vivian Schiller, President and CEO, NPR.

Moderator: Terence Smith, Journalist; former Correspondent, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”

This was just a great discussion on so many levels: content, the interaction between a group of longtime media folks, some who have adapted (Huffington), some who are struggling (NYTimes) and some who have discovered that their models were surprisingly recession-proof(NPR).

There was a lot of discussion back-and-forth about the idea that information is not free. Someone has to pay for investigative journalism. NPR, surprisingly, has the most journalists in bureaus outside the U.S. and the company’s business model has held up because NPR receives so much money from its committed listeners. Here are some interesting stats: during the economic crisis they had record high ratings: 34 million listeners weekly, averaging 8 hours per week. NPR takes in $300M annually from its donors!

Andy Lack from Bloomberg News (he focuses on multimedia, given his long background in television news). His comments echoed everything we’ve heard from Bloomberg wire and print journalists. They aspire to be a huge player if not the leader in news. They have 2300 reporters, they’re aggressively focused on expanding their audience outside of their traditional terminal readers. Bloomberg takes in $6B+ in revenue from the terminals which allows the company to hire so many journalists and expand the way they have. (The terminal subscription, btw, is about $25,000 per year!). In addition to reporting business news, Bloomberg also is expanding its consumer audience through television, radio, Internet — and mobile.

Bill Keller of the New York Times appeared to be the least enthusiastic participant on this panel. He always looked as though he had just swallowed a mouthful of cough medicine — and while he was telling the audience that he was starting to feel that the misery was receding and that advertising was coming back. He noted that NYT online logs 20M uniques per month in North America and that number is increasing. While the newspaper has made cuts over the last year, NYT is not eliminating foreign bureaus (40-some reporters abroad), no domestic bureau cuts either. In fact, they have added Phoenix, Kansas City and have grown the Washington Bureau.

Ariana Huffington, Huffington Post — Almost five years old, one of top 10 sites on the web for current events; 13M uniques during March, which is a greater than 94% increase year over year. She noted they could pass the NYT soon. Let’s just say that the dynamics between Huffington and Keller were interesting. She kept saying how they were synergistic; he looked skeptical with a tight smile each time she said it. She believes the print vs online debate is old news. She talked about her site’s incredible growth and incredible ad growth. She believes sites like hers are the future of journalism and they are investing in longer-form journalism. Content at Huffpost is “open-source.” She noted that NYT and ProPublic won Pulitzers this year and said that the ProP team was very similar to her team. She has 6000 bloggers who write and post and described a “thriving” commenter community. To that end, 2.3M comments, pre-moderated. 30 human moderators, using social media (Twitter, Facebook). She said that Huffpo is #2 source for online news behind #1 NYT. All of Huffpo’s profit is plowed into growing the business. She mentioned their book section, food section, etc.

Gordon Crovitz, Journalism Online — Spoke the least of any of the panelists and his comments centered mostly about business models, referencing old data about the economics of the industry shifting. He commented on NPR as the model for news organizations, and used the word “freemium,” prompting Vivian Schiller of NPR (who was a terrific speaker, btw) to correct him that NPR will continue to be free. Period.

Keller was put on the spot a few times about the NYT’s metered model, which we know is not completely baked. Keller made a point of saying that they studied every model to figure out what made the most sense. Other panelists joined in to reinforce the point that good journalism requires money to pay for the reporting, etc.

There was an interesting conversation among the panelists about hybrid-journalism, using the election in Iran as the example. The idea that established news organizations who couldn’t cover Iran in-person (because the journalists were asked to leave the country) asked ordinary citizens to send photos, video, etc. Huffpo and NYT both used the material they received and it made for compelling important news for readers. An off-shoot of this conversation focused on the Balloon Boy story and how ludicrous the coverage was (i.e., cable networks devoting so much time to it). But, Schiller made the comment that while it wasn’t a typical NPR story, they saw a spike in comments about the story and the comments came from listeners who were scientists or other experts. There folks were making the case with scientific data that the boy couldn’t be in the balloon. She thought that was a very interesting example of the two-way dialogue that is enabled by a strong Internet presence.

The last part of the panel discussion revisited the business model and “future” discussion. Keller said that we shouldn’t panic. There will be traditional media survivors, start-ups (he lumped Huffpo in that category). He’s optimistic but noted that the process of getting there isn’t pretty.

Survivors will figure out the new revenue streams, but paying for real investigative journalism needs to be figured out. Crovitz thinks that readers will need to step up and pay a reasonable amount.

Huffington wanted to distinguish saving newspapers and saving journalism. She would like to see the conversation focus on improving journalism (e.g., use digital tools to do instant fact-checking on politicians). Her take is that there is a brave new world ofjournalism and we shouldn’t focus on saving old business models, we should focus on evolving.

My observation is that not everyone on the panel seemed to welcome Huffington’s input. Keller looked annoyed when she talked about packaging columns and great stories written by one of his Pulitzer-prize winning business journalists. Huffington’s view is that she was packaging great content in a different way. Keller didn’t say it, but he must have been thinking, “Certainly great content, but that’s ours.”