"Brands are the solution, not the problem," Mr. Schmidt said. "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."
Therefore, magazines and other content creators are essential to Google's efforts to help people find desirable material, he said. "We don't do content," he said. "You all create content. It's a natural partnership."
Google may indeed depend on high-quality content, but that doesn't mean Mr. Schmidt could say who will fund its creation in the years ahead. Expensive editorial content, such as in-depth investigations, is endangered by the rise of digital media, where ad rates are too low to handle the same costs as newspapers and magazines traditionally have supported. Mr. Schmidt said a nonprofit model may be required.
Those weren't comforting words for the editors and publishers who have been watching the internet draw more ad spending every year. The group was smaller last week than in years past, with some 400 gathered in the Westin St. Francis in downtown San Francisco. The meeting drew about 500 people the last time it convened out West two years ago. The global financial crisis unfolding outside also meant the conference had to work double time for attendees' attention.
Church and state
Magazine editors signaled renewed interest in patrolling and protecting the wall that's meant to protect editorial content from advertisers' influence. But it wasn't clear whether the genie can be rebottled after so much blurring of media lines.
"In a tough economic environment, advertisers are getting more aggressive about using our brands to promote their own," David Willey, the president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, said after the conference. "Our best asset is our content. Our content's best asset is that readers trust it and they trust us. We just can't endanger that."
In a sign of the challenge ahead, others suggested that the wall was still too high. John Butler, executive creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, projected a slide onto the convention's giant screens that read, "Get over the whole church-state thing."
"He was being playful and even provocative, because without it we could do some really great things together," said Mr. Willey.
Stay tuned. Some people are already worrying over an effort, by the editors' association and the Magazine Publishers of America, to revise their digital guidelines for magazine publishers. "While I agree we need to protect editorial integrity, I'm concerned that the new digital-media guidelines stifle publishers' and advertisers' ability to deliver innovation," one ad buyer said.
A publisher put it another way. "How smart would we look to be coming to clients with a 32-page rulebook about what can and can't be done when we're the only ones in the world doing that?" he asked.
The industry is also trying to catch up on addressing magazines' environmental impact. Sustainability took the conference's main stage for the first time, in a big step for a business whose product often ends up seeping methane from landfills.
"It's very exciting to see a general session here at the AMC on this subject," said David Refkin, director of sustainable development at Time Inc. His employer promotes forest-certification programs, he said, and backs an ad campaign encouraging readers to recycle magazines.
"We're none of us ready to go to zero-carbon in reality," said Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director at Ogden Publications, owner of titles including the Utne Reader and Mother Earth News. But consumer concerns over responsible paper use are right out in front, he said.
"Do whatever you can to lower your impact," Mr. Welch advised. "Then make sure your audiences know what you're doing."
In the end the Google visit overshadowed the rest of the conference. One publisher wished, with just a hint of exaggeration, that the whole conference had been turned over to Silicon Valley.