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Online Media Steps Tentatively Into New Business Models

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.