By Colleen Leahey
FORTUNE – Forget the black-and-white newspaper, the consumption of media today is rather gray in hue. The advent of the Internet let loose a revolution in the way readers (and viewers) got their daily dose of content. That revolution shows no signs of letting up, according to the leaders of some of the country’s biggest media companies gathered here at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit.
Years after the rise of the “@” sign, blogs, the new language of search engine optimization and dozens of other innovations, social sites Twitter and Facebook have opened up new avenues and methods of reporting. They have also presented challenges to companies trying to make money publishing their content online. Traditional advertising models appear to be dying — and companies like Gannett, NBC Universal, and Time Inc. are looking to create a new ones. (Full disclosure: Time Inc. is Fortune‘s parent.)
Bonnie Hammer, Chairman of NBCU’s Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Studios, brings in the bulk of the company’s revenue, overseeing businesses like high-rated cable network USA. She equated this new wave of technology to the introduction of cable into a broadcast-only world decades ago. There was a fear cable would upend broadcasting, she said, but it ended up being an additive, not a destructive force. Hammer’s issue is not with new tech platforms, but with the speed at which they’re rolling out. “The acceleration is what’s hard to keep up with,” she said, referring to digital opportunities as “frenemies.”
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Laura Lang, CEO of Time Inc., agreed that social streams and other new technologies present great opportunity; they help her company better understand its consumer. Time Inc. properties attract 130 million unique views per month, she said, and the data collected from those views can be used to allow an advertiser to engage scale by having a presence on multiple platforms.
As the CEO of Gannett, which publishes USA Today among other publications, Gracia Martore said she’s using her companies’ data to act as a trusted advisor to the over 150,000 small and medium businesses her company works with. USA Today has also dabbled with using social as a complement, as Twitter VP of Sales and Development Katie Jacobs Stanton noted. The site works with the brand’s audience to “get a pulse on what people are saying about [political] candidates.” This real-time sentiment should be sellable, but it’s a matter of smartly packaging the entire experience.
Data needs to be used differently, Lang said. The realtime data — who’s engaging when, where, and how — allows media companies to understand how consumers interact with their brands. And that understanding adds value to advertisers’ commitment to the brand. Hammer added that experimenting with new platforms (NBCU has been testing out a digital curator called Zeebox) is the first step. The next? Getting advertisers to embrace these new forms of engagement by aggressively packaging content differently. Hammer also suggested loosening company silos, which allows for sharing in a new way.
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In an industry undergoing a seismic shift, how do these leaders find the right talent to innovate — if not keep up? Martore hopes to employ those who understand change and handle uncertainly with grace. Hammer mirrored that sentiment, smartly wishing for employees with clairvoyance, as well as the ability to embrace change. Lang looks for intellectual curiosity in Time Inc.’s journalism and business teams.
But perhaps Stanton put it best. Though media is exciting, the industry’s future is uncertain. To work for any of these companies, employees need passion. “You can’t do with your hands what you can’t do with your heart,” she said. As these women navigate their businesses through murky times, loyal employees can help the companies go far.