NPR’s Shogren said that she still sees “a lot reporters at global warming hearings on Capitol Hill, but they represent different organizations – fewer newspapers, more online services.” (The Project for Excellence in Journalism has observed the same.) She complimented the quality of their work, but also noted her concern about what that trend means for the public. “There is more information available online, but what about the person who’s not particularly interested? Will they just run across it? If people aren’t informed, that will have an impact on how much politicians care about [these issues]. Cap-and-trade, for example, has huge political stumbling blocks.”

Dykstra said that while he is having a “great time” writing for Mother Nature Network, he is also concerned about the “new dichotomy” of the news media. “A Web site on any specific topic, whether sports or science or the environment, tends to draw those who choose to be engaged, rather than drawing an audience of the general public, which is what institutions like the AP or NPR or CNN have always done.”

Despite such apprehensions, however, everybody agreed the industry is trying hard to figure out the best way forward. Schaffer, the executive director of J-Lab, said that her organization—which, according to its Web site, funds “participatory journalism” projects that “use new technologies to help people actively engage in critical public issues”—has funded about sixty startups around the country over the last four years. “News vacuums will be filled, they just might not all be filled by big-J journalists,” she said. “How that’s going to play out we don’t know yet.”

Schaffer described a number of “random” and “organized” acts of journalism, such as uploading amateur photos and videos of breaking news events, on the one hand, and “civic-media networks” on the other. Professional news outlets are launching their own experiments, as well. In the last few months, content sharing deals have been struck between The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post Gazette, eight top papers in Ohio, three in Florida, and two in Oklahoma. Schaffer did not say how such agreements might affect science coverage. In that department, recent, online news outlets were the focus.

Schaffer showed a clip of the upcoming J-Lab video called New Media Makers, which profiles, among others, one of the more acclaimed startups, the non-profit Voice of San Diego. News editor Andrew Donohue tells J-Lab that his team emphasizes a few core issues—including environment, science, and technology—that are important to the local community. Other online news outlets focus exclusively on such issues. Dykstra’s Mother Nature Network is one example. Another that came up often was the Environment & Energy Publishing group.

As it happened, John Fialka, editor of ClimateWire, E&E’s most recent publication, was sitting in the audience and stood up to ask the first question after the panelists had finished. Having previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, Fialka is another veteran of old media that has transitioned successfully to the Web. ClimateWire has grown from zero to ten reporters in a year, just hired a European bureau chief, and has a readership of 40,000. “Howard Kurtz says we’re a ‘niche’ publication, which big-J journalists tend to dismiss, but we are growing like topsy,” Fialka said. He also noted, however, that ClimateWire serves an educated, engaged audience—a fact that makes some people skeptical about its ability to compensate for the decline of traditional news.

Indeed, subscriptions to E&E Publishing are expensive because the group targets institutional subscribers—government agencies, policy organizations, NGOs, advocacy groups, universities, and the like—rather than individuals. It’s a contentious issue.

“Joe Six-Pack isn’t going to subscribe to ClimateWire because he doesn’t know about it, can’t afford it, or isn’t interested until they read or hear [the issues] in big-Journalism,” the AP’s Borenstein said to Fialka. “That’s our job – to provide him with enough news that he’ll be interested in plumbing in even further depth at places like yours, or Mother Nature Network, or Grist … Like it or not, we’re sort of the first door, and once we get [readers’] interest, then you’re the next door. And I think both doors are important, but don’t go telling us that you can live without us because they’re not going to come to you if they haven’t heard it from one of us.”

Both Schaffer and Fialka, in response, pointed out that ClimateWire may end up striking content distribution deals with places like Google News, Politico, or The New York Times. But the debate goes to show that until some of these projects multiply and mature, the reach of startup projects, whether they focus partially or entirely on science, will remain a contentious issue.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.