If Katie Couric is the answer, what’s the question?

November 27, 2013

Web publishing — never a diffident business — has been calling attention to itself all week long. Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, whose forte as boss has been the shimmering acquisition (Summly, Tumblr, Xobni, Rockmelt, et al.) and the high-profile media hire (David Pogue, Megan Liberman, Matt Bai), signed Katie Couric as the site’s “global anchor,” and promised additional Yahoo News signings, enabling Couric to “lead a growing team of correspondents.” Business Insider auteur Henry Blodget, whose enthusiasm for himself approaches the onanistic, responded to Michael Wolff’s suggestion that the Insider has peaked and that he should sell with a column saying he wasn’t ready to bail. Further down the food chain, Politico, which recently dumped its broadcast TV stations, purchased Capital New York, and PandoDaily (backed by Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Tony Hsieh, and others) bought NSFWCORP to, as its Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy put it, “double down on investigative reporting.”

All this recent activity could be interpreted as the Internet’s usual background noise — prestige hires, quietly dumped in the next business downturn, and the usual activity by sites testing their worth in the marketplace or actually selling out. Or, alongside the global expansion of BuzzFeed, the phenomenal growth of Gawker, and Cheezburger-Circa’s blitzkrieg, do these nuggets serve as new markers of the Web ascendency to a place of media dominance?

As someone with a vested interest in the Web’s success, I’m prepared to interpret the setting of the sun as an indicator that the Internet was causing all the other media forms to go dark. But it’s not just me: The speed with which Google transitioned from a university research project to a media colossus impels the belief that the complete eclipse of traditional media is unstoppable. In about a dozen years, Google has reordered the media cosmos: It will take in 33 percent of all global digital ad revenue — approximately $38.6 billion — this year, six times that of the first runner-up, Facebook, according to eMarketer. It will also collect more than 50 percent of all mobile advertising. Its annual ad revenues now surpass those of the entire newspaper industry (as well as the entire magazine industry), as Business Insider recently informed us. “The growth of internet advertising revenue has outpaced other media every year since 2005,” Marketing Land reported earlier this year, with the Internet vying with domestic broadcast TV for ad revenue primacy.

When you’re thirsty, your best bet is to go to where you see water flowing. When your desire turns to ad revenue, you’d be similarly wise to place yourself near the flow, which increasingly has become the Web. That goes a long way to explain the exuberance, not all that irrational, for Internet things. As Reuters’ Jennifer Saba recently reported, investors are swarming like fire ants to dump money into digital start-ups. Compare that to the $250 million Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post. The last investments in BuzzFeed lent the company a valuation of $200 million. Vox — publisher of SB Nation and The Verge — just bought Curbed Network, which runs blogs devoted to real estate, food, and fashion. Machinima, the YouTube gaming channel, is valued at around $190 million.

The difference between the current enthusiasm for Internet things compared to the 1999 bubble that popped is that nobody denies the velocity or ultimate direction of the ad revenue arrow. Oh, part of the enthusiasm might have to do with the ever-expanding social-media bubble, but when ink-stained loyalists like the Post‘s Donald Graham surrender their printer’s aprons to Internet barbarians like Bezos, the new bubble starts to look more like a rising moon.

I decline all invitations to read much into Yahoo’s new hires until Mayer reveals a grand strategy for her news division. The main reason she has millions to throw at acquisitions and talented journalists is a stock that has doubled in the past year, driven by Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba, not Mayer’s genius. The cynic in me believes the Pogue, Liberman, Bai, and Couric additions are largely designed to produce positive press for the Yahoo name. The company, audience leader among the desktop computer crowd, knows that the audience is moving to mobile, hence Mayer’s pronouncement last week of a “mobile first” strategy. Yahoo has as good a shot as anybody in attracting those who need to check their mail, stocks, weather, games, maps, and sports scores while on the go. But I don’t see what the mobile first makeover has to do with the Pogue, Liberman, Bai, and Couric additions. (See Ryan Tate’s sparkling paragraph on what happened the last time Yahoo hired star journalists.)

For all its upstart posture, Yahoo shares with the New York Times the problem of being anchored to a legacy media that is in perpetual systemic decline: Audiences and advertisers are moving from the desktop to mobile and from print to digital. It is the lumbering U.S.S. Enterprise surrounded by too many well-armed, killer speedboats like BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Machinima. The company’s size only encourages attacks on its best businesses, and as stalwart as the Pogue and Couric gang are, speed and maneuverability usually win battles.


Disclosure: Two years ago, in what can only be described as a tactical error, a very nice Yahoo employee approached me about working for Yahoo News. I declined. Cautionary note to David Pogue: In 1996, New York Times computer gadgets writer Peter H. Lewis left the paper to become the vice president and editorial director at the Internet start-up IdeaMarket, named by Fortune magazine in 1997 as a “cool company.” Shortly thereafter, the company folded, and Lewis went back to the Times. I crave your cautionary note, so please compose and send it to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed, based on the last round of funding, is worth a buck and a half. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: TV personality Katie Couric arrives for the Sixth Annual Exploring the Arts Fundraising Gala in New York October 4, 2012.    REUTERS/Carlo Allegri


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Courie in the morning, Courie for lunch, Courie for dinner and all night long for this 24 hour stud! Inbetween love gasps Katie whispers to me the news.

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

It is beyond me how anyone interested in the news could possibly take Katie Couric seriously. She doesn’t even begin to qualify as a journalist.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

David Pogue has been the most shallow tech writer in America, feeding low info pablum to the naive while playing water boy for Apple. As a Times subscriber I’ve been rolling my eyes at his cutsie fluff for years. I suppose he could change his stripes for Yahoo, I’m just glad he’s no longer at The Times. Katie Couric is as useless as Pogue, the opposite of a real journalist.

What gets bought is a recognizable human brand name, not a write journalist or other quality information expert.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive

“For all its upstart posture, Yahoo shares with the New York Times the problem of being anchored to a legacy media that is in perpetual systemic decline”
mmm… no. In fact, this one sentence seems to pretty much unpick the whole of your column. You mention that Yahoo is working to go ‘mobile first’, and has as good a chance as anybody. You’re not convinced, sure, but to say that Yahoo is achored to a legacy medium is to misunderstand the internet. Consumers are not ditching their PCs for mobile devices; research consistently shows consumers *adding* to their PC internet consumption with mobile. And content as a USP still has value – Google for its skills in search does not produce content, merely signposts it.

But honestly, I’m not entirely sure *what* you’re trying to get at, other than you don’t think Yahoo has what it takes to compete in the future. Which may be a valid view, but doesn’t stand up without showing any better reasoning.

Posted by Womble | Report as abusive

One angle you are not exploring is the decrease of the importance of these media institutions and the increasing brand power of individuals. The best example is Nate Silver, who walked away from the NY Times for broader ambit at ESPN, or perhaps the AllThingsD brand, now walking away from WSJ.com.

Posted by stoweboyd | Report as abusive

Excellent article Jack!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive