“I’ve been looking at the Demand [Media] model…the Associated Content model, and asking, ‘What does this mean for news?’” said Ahearn. “I think for a journalistic organization to adapt to the changes that are before us, we need to be more flexible.”

Forbes’s Dvorkin said that he has two different definitions of quality: one for print, and one for digital. For the web, what’s most important is “timeliness, constant updating, relevance to the audience for the topic you’re trying to build, aggregating, your expert voice, and…getting contributors and staffers engaged in the conversation. They need to react and talk to their audience.” For print, “a finite product,” the focus is on accuracy, because there are no updates after the fact.

Dvorkin then shifted the conversation, attempting to underplay Google’s significance in the equation. “You said something earlier about Google deciding quality—I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “Especially moving forward, I look at it as your friends and your colleagues deciding quality. I spend a lot more time focused on social, and where our strategy is coming from there, than I do on worrying about the things that Google is doing. Because you can have an impact on traffic coming via Twitter or Facebook or Foursquare or whatever…. Not that we’re not thinking about Google and doing what we need to do, but to me, that’s yesterday’s story, not tomorrow’s story.”

Ahearn agreed. “Google is an elephant in the room; it can distort traffic,” he said. “It becomes a game…but social is going to be far more interesting for us. That’s a lot more nuanced.”

ZDNet’s Dignan did not seem convinced. “Don’t you still get most of your traffic from Google?” he asked. “We put a lot of effort into social, cultivating our Facebook page, but as far as payoff at the end of the day, when you look at referrals, it’s still dominated by Google.”

Dvorkin and Ahearn shook their heads. “But I think you’re defining social wrong,” said Ahearn. “If it’s about cultivating your Facebook page: So? It’s about cultivating your audience. How are they taking your content, how are they carrying your message?”

One thing that the panel seemed to agree on was that the number of page views a post got was not the measure of its quality. “I just think the page view obsession is nonsense,” said Ahearn. “We have to do it right now. But it’s not a measure of value, at the end of the day…. I think that we continue—collectively, as an industry—to make the mistake of hard-wiring everything into page views and advertising.”

Dignan challenged that: “You can’t tell me Forbes doesn’t care about page views,” he said to Dvorkin.

“Well, I don’t obsess over them,” Dvorkin answered. “I lived at AOL, I obsessed over page views at AOL. But [at Forbes] we’re all about building an audience.”

But someone in the audience had a good question: If the revenue model throughout the online content industry—and the ad agencies that service it—still all generally rely on page views and clicks-per-million as metrics of success, then how do we transition out of that? How do we actually “measure engagement,” when it comes to dollars and cents?

“I don’t know,” Ahearn admitted. “But it’s about changing the conversation…. We get off the ‘juice’ as the easiest thing to measure. It’ll be a collective movement over time. But I think if we don’t get honest and talk about it, and say it’s nonsense, then it won’t change.”

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner