10/27/2010 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Media Grandees Optimistic for Future, Noncommittal to Present

After the terminal diagnoses of last year, journalism has been seemingly reprieved. Which is not to say that reports of the old models' demise were exaggerated greatly or otherwise. To the contrary, "the news about the news ad business is still negative," as Ken Doctor wrote last week. But, he added, "Not as negative as the negativity of last year."

Tempered optimism was on display last night at New York University, where David Carr, media columnist for the Times, led a panel discussion entitled: "The Case for Media Optimism: What's Working and Why." There to spread cheer were founders of two voguish start-ups—Dennis Crowley of Foursquare, and Tumblr's David Karp—David Eun, the president of AOL Media and Studios, and Steve Grove, who runs news and politics at YouTube.

Speaking to a full house—which looked to skew female—Carr noted that he was the only print journalist on stage. A hybrid model of journalism was emerging, he said, "more nimble, more adaptive and more capable of covering the communities that they're in."

His question for the panelists was a deceptively simple one: "Are you a media company or a technology company?"

Karp, of Tumblr, nearly managed to avoid the question. His creation, he said, exposes the process behind traditional newsgathering.

"If you're a fan," he said, "this is the next level."

Newsweek's Equality Myth blog began as a research tool for two of its writers, but now exists as a standalone and popular destination for Tumblr readers. The blog, Karp noted, "will possibly survive Newsweek."

When Carr pressed him on the original question, Karp said, "Three years ago I would have squarely said we were a technology company. Now I don't know anymore."

Crowley, whose location-based service has just passed four million users, said Foursquare was "definitely technology now."

"We didn't set out to do things with media companies," Crowley said; the media companies (including this one) came to them.

Right now, he said Foursquare "looks a lot like the early days of Twitter." With a million-and-a-half daily check-ins, Crowley said, "it's like a powerful thing to know," comparing the Foursquare grid to Harry Potter's Marauder's Map.

Like Twitter or Tumblr, however, Foursquare is not a creator of content, but a platform for it.

AOL's Eun, then, was unique among the panelists. Acknowledging the ups and downs that have characterized AOL's long presence, Eun said he now conceived of the company as a "starter-up," with the opportunity to create "high quality content at scale."

If he had to choose between media and technology, Eun would say, "Yes."

Likewise, Grove, of YouTube, answered Carr's question without answering it. YouTube, he said, was thinking about how to "bring media and technology together."

And there you had four people sanguine about the future of something to which they couldn't at present commit.