“I think the conclusion that we’ve [the panelists] all come to is that the challenging economy is neither good nor bad for publishers,” said New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin, “it’s just a reality.”

Belkin, who moderated Mediabistro’s sixth annual “Dinner and Discourse,” held last night at 24 Fifth Avenue, challenged six senior-level women’s magazine editors to discuss the future of digital strategy and online content development. The talk, though, shifted to some of the nuts and bolts of cultivating an online audience—and the growing pains that come with it.

Erin Dailey, Hearst Digital Media’s Web site managing editor, has been shocked to see the kind of response that some of Hearst’s blog posts have received. Pre-election, Cosmopolitan posted a blog outlining Obama’s stance on women’s rights. “It was a relatively short post,” Dailey said, but she cited the response rate as overwhelming. The reason, she considered, could be that the blog post offered a new, timely way of reconfiguring this content, allowing it to better resonate with readers, and enhance both reader experience as well as drive metrics.

Similarly, when Essence.com posted a photo slideshow on its site, “Barack and Michelle Obama’s Love Story,” the brand saw a high response on its message boards for zero investment. “The photos were free,” said Essence.com managing editor Angela Burt-Murray.

To this end, Belkin wondered if the increase in online audience response is a more recent development, or a result of having more available technological resources. “I’m not sure if readers were less vocal 15 years ago, or just didn’t have the means to express themselves,” she said. Either way, panelists cited situations where user comments or discussion board postings were less than flattering. “How many ‘angry comments’ do you allow?” asked Belkin. Panel members, including Realsimple.com’s executive director Tanya Singer, agreed that moderation guidelines of both message boards and user comments should be part of editorial policy going forward.