Yahoo! creates new editors-in-chief for news, finance

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Hillary Frey and Aaron Task. ()
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Marissa Mayer isn't Yahoo's only high-level appointment this week.

The Silicon Valley search portal-turned-content titan, which on Monday named Mayer, a popular Google executive, as its new C.E.O., has tapped some internal talent to head up two of its most highly-trafficked brands.

Hillary Frey, who joined the company from Adweek almost a year ago, has been named editor-in-chief of Yahoo! News. Aaron Task, a former editor at TheStreet.com who's been with Yahoo since 2008 and hosts its "Daily Ticker" webcast, has been named editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Finance. Both positions, which a spokesperson said are the first of their kind since Yahoo! News and Yahoo! Finance began focusing on original content over the past several years, are based in the company's New York offices near Bryant Park.

Yahoo is expected to announce the promotions later today in a move that seems meant to reinforce its commitment to original journalism as company leadership changes hands for the second time in six months and the fifth time in as many years.

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That commitment came into question back in January as the keys were handed over to Scott Thompson, a former eBay executive who saw data and technology as the key ingredients to the future of Yahoo, which is still struggling to cement its identity and improve earnings while remaining relevant in the face of a growing bench of competitors. The company's latest financial results, released Tuesday, dipped a little more than 4 percent from a year earlier.

After Thompson was ousted in May amid controversy over his inflated resume, insiders and outsiders alike expected that the baton would pass to the more media-focused Ross Levinsohn, who'd assumed the C.E.O. title on an interim basis. Instead, along came Mayer, a former engineer and programmer who'd climbed up Google's corporate ladder during her 13 years at the company and was responsible for some of its most successful product innovations.

So far, it's unclear whether Mayer is as committed to media as her immediate predecessor. But last month, as the C.E.O. search was in full swing, one of Levinsohn's lieutenants told Capital that Yahoo's premium content ambitions, which became a big investment under former C.E.O. Carol Bartz, remained unchanged.

"We have never wavered on the media strategy," said Robertson Barrett, vice president of news and finance at Yahoo, in a phone interview. "We're going to keep evolving."

Making two top editorial promotions is a step in that direction.

On the Yahoo! News side in particular, Frey's leadership appears to streamline a disjointed operation with staff spread across Santa Monica, New York and Washington D.C., while at the same time dropping an anchor on the East Coast.

"This puts a stake in the ground to say that we've headquartered Yahoo! News editorial in New York," said Frey, who was hired as managing editor last October. (Disclosure: Frey was one of my editors when we worked together at The New York Observer from early 2008 to mid-2010.)

"We have this great blessing of being a bi-coastal news operation with people on at all different hours from morning until night. So one of the things I'm thinking about is the best way to allocate our resources," she said. "I'm excited about further integrating the Santa Monica and East Coast operations."

Over the past few years, Yahoo! News has progressed from primarily functioning as a third-party content portal with no shortage of wire copy to becoming a destination that showcases content largely produced by people who actually work there. Seventy percent of the pageviews on Yahoo! News are now derived from original content, a significant increase from a year ago, according to Barrett.

Starting in 2010, there was a big push to develop a stable of reported news blogs manned by a small group of editors and reporters, including brand-name hires like Andrew Golis, Chris Lehmann, John Cook, Michael Calderone and Laura Rozen, who have all since moved on, along with several others. (Second disclosure: I co-wrote a Yahoo media blog called The Cutline from November of 2010 until I started working at Capital last September.)

Though the blogs generate substantial pageviews and have come in handy from a P.R. perspective as the company seeks to redefine itself as a hub for original journalism, they were recently deemphasized as Yahoo! News recalibrated its efforts around election-year coverage and a partnership with ABC News that has boosted both brands' already astronomical web traffic. In June, the combined Yahoo!-ABC News Network had more than 81 million unique U.S. visitors, more than any other "general news" property on the web, according to comScore.

Two of Yahoo's news blogs, The Cutline and The Envoy, which covered foreign affairs, have stopped publishing altogether.

"We're moving away from a blog strategy," said Frey. "When I came here it sort of made me crazy that we had all these great reporters being referred to as bloggers. We're a newsroom, not a blog network."

Frey said her immediate impetus was to be "smart and focused with the stuff we already have" as opposed to rushing out new editorial products and increasing the head count. The Yahoo spokesperson declined to confirm how many journalists work for Yahoo! News in total, but it's safe to say the number is far smaller than the several hundred who occupy the newsroom of Yahoo's main competitor, AOL, which has the firepower of The Huffington Post under its hood.

"We're not in an arms race with AOL," said Barrett during our interview last month.

Frey said her team was also concentrating on "deploying resources around the upcoming conventions and debates"—and around election night in November, of course. To that effect, Yahoo! News has strengthened its political roster in the past year with the additions of New York and D.C. based journalists including David Chalian, Jeff Greenfield, Walter Shapiro and Olivier Knox, as well as Chris Suellentrop and Virginia Heffernan, both of whom worked at The New York Times Magazine. Reporters Holly Bailey, Rachel Rose Hartman and Chris Moody, meanwhile, have all become regulars on the campaign trail.

(It's worth noting that Yahoo! Sports, which laid the groundwork for the company's original content plans, has also made a considerable investment in journalism. Barrett told us that its August 2011 expose on the University of Miami's football and basketball programs was submitted for Pulitzer consideration this year.)

As for Task, one of his main duties will be to work closely with CNBC, which Yahoo! Finance struck up a partnership with last month similar to its arrangement with ABC News. Yahoo! Finance had a U.S. audience of 36.7 million in June, according to comScore, thereby maintaining its 54-month streak as the country's most widely-read financial news site.

“My goal is to make Yahoo! Finance the primary source for original content on all news about the economy, investing and the financial markets, for everyone from Wall Street insiders to the budget moms,” said Task in a statement. “A key component in this will be leveraging our industry leadership in financial video, to create a one-stop shop for the latest news and insights into the often complex world of finance and economics.”