The growth in online media is not the first time that disruptive change has come to the news industry. More than 100 years ago, linotype brought us mass circulation newspapers. Less than a generation ago, 24-hour television news made comment as valuable as the news stories themselves. Now we have the internet, which is allowing a new generation of consumers not just to receive news, but to make it themselves. As Rupert Murdoch says, the new generation "want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it."

This revolution is occurring while we experience the worst global financial crisis in living memory, with media on the front line. According to Zenith Optimedia, global ad spending this year will decline in the US and western Europe by 5.7% and 1% respectively. Amid this carnage, print is forecast to be the worst-hit, declining by 4.1% in western Europe. The one bright spot is online advertising, which is expected to grow in western Europe by nearly 12%.

Here in Ireland, a record 3.1 million people, or 88% of the adult population, are now regular newspaper readers, according to the Joint National Readership Survey (JNRS) for 2008/2009. More than 58% now read any daily title and 71.4% read any Sunday title, placing Ireland among Europe's best when it comes to newspaper readership. Yet despite this growth in readership, advertising revenues remain under intense pressure. Nielsen data for the first four months of the year suggests press advertising is down as much as 15%.

The economic crisis promises to accelerate the three profound internet-inspired shifts for the news industry. First, audiences – especially younger generations – are exercising more control over what they watch and forming communities around content. Second, the internet's ease of distribution is generating a huge proliferation and explosion of content. And third, as interactivity increases, competition for people's attention increases and audiences fragment.

For the traditional news industry, these three factors are causing change. While newspapers were once geographically disparate, most now are on the web and available to anyone with internet connection. At first glance, this sounds wonderful: there's no longer a need to distribute with shipping trucks in small areas. With the internet, your market is global. But global distribution means newspapers are now competing with everyone. The number of online newspapers has grown by more than 50% in the past five years. At the same time, the amount of user-generated content is exploding. There are roughly 50,000 magazines and 600,000 books published in Europe each year. In comparison, in 2007 France alone was home to a staggering 5.5 million blogs.

How will consumers navigate through this information overload? The obvious answers are search engines. Let's take Google News. When users go to Google news, they see headlines, snippets and image thumbnails. In order to read the story, they must click through links to the original websites. Google News drives traffic to thousands of news publishers. We also have a programme to share advertising revenue that generated about $4bn for newspapers last year.

This is not to deny the daunting challenge of working out how to make money from online content. Newspapers are not the first industry to struggle with this issue. Just look at the music industry. It too struggled to adapt to the digital world, and yet now has come up with several winning ideas, including iTunes.

Newspapers are experimenting with various models. One targets premium content. If you have specialised content – such as The Wall Street Journal in finance – subscribers still seem to be willing to pay for it, even if it's delivered online. Paid subscriptions for the Journal's website were up more than 7% in a very gloomy 2008. Others might try to get newspaper readers to pay for a portion of online content through an iTunes-like micropayment system created so subscribers can pay as they go.

Another model is free content, which lends itself to wide circulation and which attracts advertising. Metro, the free daily paper in France, has a circulation of over 520,000 – well above most French newspapers. The growth of free papers has been extraordinary: according to the World Association of Newspapers, 23% of daily newspapers in Europe were free in 2008.

We're convinced advertisers will go where the readers are and that suggests both the free and paid models can work. An analogy might be the TV business. A large amount of television content is free and supported by advertising. Other content is part of basic cable, and there is some income in being part of that distribution channel. Finally, pay TV creates a wall that the consumer cannot get over unless he is willing to shell out for premium content such as films.

In all these cases, newspapers must question every assumption, starting with the most basic: Is their primary product print? In the US, the award-winning Christian Science Monitor, which was founded in 1908, has become a multiplatform publication with web, print and email components. It has ceased daily print editions and has replaced them with daily email and web editions and a weekly print edition. Closer to home, driven by increasing consumer demand, the Britain's Daily Telegraph is pursuing a strategy to make mobile news and mobile journalism a natural extension of its website and its reporting. It recently relaunched its mobile news site and has been developing new mobile applications, including applications for the Google Android.

Only one thing is sure: the internet will bring traffic to news providers. What happens after that is up to publishers.