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NEW YORK -- A few years ago, it might have seemed far-fetched to imagine representatives from traditional media stalwarts like The New York Times and MTV Networks urging others to follow their lead in adapting to survive an evolving online environment. But the times, they are a-changing.
Here at the ad:tech New York conference today, exhortations came from MTV, NYTimes.com and other Web media leaders as online publishers continued coming to terms with the show's dominant theme: extending reach in an online marketplace that is expanding as quickly as it is fragmenting.
Speaking during a presentation titled "Publishing in the Digital Age," successful online media players warned their fellows that consumers must be able to access content anywhere, not just on their Web site.
No longer is the online media business about "appointment viewing" -- where the publisher dictates the terms of viewer access, they said. Rather, it relies on finding new channels through which they can extend the reach of their brand.
"A year ago, I would have said it's all about driving traffic to our sites," said Nada Stirratt, executive vice president of digital advertising for MTV Networks. "Today, it's about becoming more open -- opening our content to make sure that the consumer can get it wherever they want it."
Moving into new platforms requires media companies to let up on the reins, yielding more control over their content to the viewers, panelists said, and cited the "widget revolution" as a prime example of this shift.
Widgets let users "build a house on someone else's property," Stirratt said, though she conceded that media companies are still trying to figure out how to measure their impact. Without the measurement standards that enable the kinds of third-party analytics the ad industry is used to, it's difficult to make programming decisions based on widget usage, she said.
The panelists added that at this early stage, efforts like widgets and desktop applications are more about increasing brand exposure than increasing revenue. When asked about monetization, the panelists seemed to shrug their collective shoulders.
"Everybody's in test mode," said Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association, who moderated the panel.
That is certainly the case with The New York Times Company, which, in its self-described widget "infancy," has introduced a Facebook-based news quiz and an iGoogle crossword puzzle, said Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com.
As media companies explore new distribution channels, they are also reconsidering their overall approaches to branding. The Times, to many the gold standard of news brands, has begun to consider its reporters, columnists and bloggers as brands unto themselves, Schiller said.
This process of brand fragmentation parallels the platform explosion, where users can engage with a media outlet in many more places than just its Web site.
Stirratt cited MTV's Comedy Central unit as an example of granular brand loyalty beyond the network brand itself. Rather, she said, there is an entire subset of viewers who might not give a whit about the bulk of the network's programming, but live and die by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
As they mull new ways to increase brand reach, media companies are necessarily considering how to integrate the booming interest in user-generated content into their online environments.
Next page: "Mobile media's defining moment"
The panelists agreed that user-generated content, like widgets, is more about engaging viewers than making money. They also argued that such content must be used cautiously, where it makes the most sense. Panelist Fran Hauser, president of Time Inc.'s People Digital unit, said her site launched blogging for users to discuss subjects about which they tend to be passionate and informed, such as television programs and fashion. Celebrity-related news, as the site's core business, remained off-limits to user content, however.
As for user-generated video, MTV's Stirratt said it remains a considerable challenge to sift through the piles of poor-quality, obscene, or otherwise unacceptable submissions to find the few gems that can be posted on an MTV property.
With widgets and user-generated content still in the exploratory stages, the panelists agreed that at least two non-traditional technologies have already proven their worth in extending publishers' reach: RSS and search.
Even if "RSS feels sort of old-fashioned in the world of widgets," Schiller said, the technology has become a cornerstone of media companies' content-distribution platforms. Each month at NYTimes.com, for instance, RSS facilitates the distribution of 5 million video streams and 1 million podcast streams, she said.
People Digital's Hauser agreed, adding that as exciting as widgets might be, "we're not seeing RSS numbers yet."
Like RSS, search has established itself in the new content-distribution landscape. Data from search traffic played a key role in NYTimes.com's recent decision to drop its subscription-based Times Select program, Schiller said.
She said that during the two-year lifespan of Times Select, NYTimes.com saw a 133 percent jump in search-driven traffic that made having a subscription-based area unworkable.
"The more search traffic that comes in, the more disparity you'll have between your loyalists and your non-loyalists," she said. She said non-loyalists are not inclined to shell out for a monthly subscription service simply because a Times op-ed piece appeared at the top of their search results page.
A final area in which publishers are experimenting still remains one of the most elusive: the mobile platform. Still, the panelists were optimistic about wireless content's potential, even if they have little in the way of hard results to show at present.
People's Hauser was quick to mention her site's own experimental premium mobile-content service, which launched in July.
Over at MTV, the company is striving to create an immersive experience and expects to rely heavily on mobile content, Stirratt said. She also cited her network's 35 mobile channels and 80 carrier partners as the conduits to a massive potential audience.
"This is mobile media's defining moment," she said.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.