As traditional media start to develop digital platforms, executives in the field are challenged to adapt their content.

For most, that means changing their mind-set to have fewer boundaries and restraint on their content. “People say they want change, but they really want is for everything to be exactly as it is today, only better,” said Martha Nelson, group editor of Time Inc’s Style and Entertainment Group. She is responsible for People, People en Español, People Style Watch, Essence, In Style and Entertainment Weekly.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But Nelson said at a panel discussion that change, both in the business strategy and the type of Web specialists needed to develop projects, will be necessary to adapt content to new platforms. “You have to really be willing to import people from outside and say, ‘Hey, we don’t know enough, we need to get someone who has fantastic experience.’”

Though print and online divisions of magazines haven’t always worked in unison, Keith Clinkscales, ESPN’s senior vice president, content development and enterprises, said the channel’s approach to managing its content across its print, Web and radio properties has adapted to the digital age. “You get to the point in recessions and tough economies and you say, ‘What is the smartest thing to do?’ And you find ways to work together, not only for the sake of making a better product, but it works better for the consumers” who seek out the content across all the ESPN platforms, he said. Finish

He admitted the transition was easier when a former editor of ESPN The Magazine was elevated to general manager. “Because of his stature as an editor, he was able to lead people,” Clinkscales said, and the move “allowed people to work with the Web completely differently than we’ve been able to do before.”

Even those with experience in the digital world — for example, panelist Samir Arora, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Glam Media, Inc. ­— have had to remain open-minded in introducing new products. When Arora launched three years ago, “Every bit of experience that I had coming from the Internet and technology and media side was proven wrong” as he determined what content women wanted online. He said most Internet companies have to be flexible and responsive enough to what the marketplace demands and make changes accordingly, a strategy Arora described as the “Startup Wiggle.”

Arora also stressed the fragmented nature of new media, with Yahoo having only a 7 percent audience share. In his view, people tend to visit their three favorite sites most often, followed by the next 500 and then the next 1 million. This makes it extremely difficult for brands to know where to advertise, and for sites to attract large audiences.

For People, Nelson mentioned staying open to new ideas has helped the title create new products across its site. “We ended up with a section that has games and has powerful traffic,” he said. “It’s not something we would have imagined in translating the experience to people.” Nelson also mentioned a popular tool on that allows users to try on different hair styles, similar to those of celebrities.

Clinkscales said another big challenge facing publishers is assessing what content plays best on which outlet, and allowing that information to be dispersed wherever it serves a vibrant audience. For example, “As the Web becomes more videocentric, there are different shows that we do on the main network that are easily transferred to the Web. Some get more views on the Web, and other areas where bloggers take it and move it around,” he said. “In sports, our primary competitors are our own networks. If something happens, it’s already reported on ESPN News, it’s already on dot-com. So how does a magazine editor of a magazine that comes out every two weeks make a mark? They’ve got to take big risks.”

But through such experimentation, Nelson said at least one element of content creating will not change across traditional brands. “What doesn’t change is the brand values. You have to keep delivering that personality, that brand point of view.”

There is one thing that won’t change, however. Asked by an audience member what type of content attracts the most visitors, all three panelists responded — almost in unison — with a single word: “News.”

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