Katie Couric on Yahoo deal: ‘We are going to try things’

Katie Couric. (David Shankbone)
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Alex Weprin

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Last night, on the eve of a big official career announcement, Katie Couric was on the phone describing what she's going to be doing next.

"I don’t think it is going to be a half-hour evening news broadcast or a two-hour morning show,” Couric said in a telephone interview with Capital last night.

And if that's precisely the reason many television executives are scratching their heads about Couric's decision to leave a major broadcast network with the highest-rated morning show on television for position of "global anchor" at a digital news portal, it's one of the things Couric said she was happiest about.

“We are trying to be very open-minded," Couric said. “What I really am excited about in working with the team at Yahoo is that there are no rules right now, we are going to try things, we are going to see how they go, we are going to see what people are interested in, we can do everything from a town hall meeting to in-depth interviews to a breaking news story.”

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It's big news, and a testament to Yahoo C.E.O. Marissa Mayer's efforts to force Yahoo's news operation into the big leagues with the biggest television, print and digital operations in the world.

During her career, which spans NBC’s “Today” and the “CBS Evening News” to her current talk show at ABC, Couric has been able to accomplish something few other TV journalists have: adeptly handling both serious journalism and softer features and interviews. It is a skill that is highly desired by television executives, who love the revenue and viewership that comes from features, but enjoy the credibility that surrounds hard-nosed interviews and investigations.

Indeed, Couric would instantly give Yahoo! a face that is recognizable to millions of Americans, as well as the credibility and experience that she has built up over her broadcast career at NBC, CBS and ABC.

But why Couric is willing to offer that to Mayer may have more to do with where Couric is in her career, and what a network still can offer her.

Couric will still have her daytime talk show syndicated by ABC at least through early next year, but her deal with ABC News was limited in terms of what she could cover.

At Yahoo!, Couric will have much more freedom to pursue whatever stories interest her, without intramural maneuvering by correspondents or anchors. If there is a short-term deal with Iran to slow its nuclear proliferation, Couric is the face of the news for Yahoo, with few to muscle her out of the way.

At Yahoo, far from being one of many voices shaping the news, her voice is the organizational principle for the rest of the news report. It's, in a way, the old metaphor about big fish and small ponds.

Of course, it's somewhat open to interpretation just how big or small a pond the Yahoo homepage is, after you strip out the older generation's prejudices in favor of the glamor of network television.

In theory, at least, Couric's news anchoring is featured on a homepage that gets 170 million unique users a month. That's a lot of eyeballs.

In practice the situation is more complex. Of those 170 million, something like 30 or 40 percent would have to actually click on one of Couric's videos for it to have the kind of reach that would make it competitive inside of a 24-hour period with a traditional television broadcast. That rate is unheard of.

But then again, those video units don't have Katie Couric in them. And that's the nub of Mayer's gamble.

A source familiar with the negotiations told Capital that Yahoo! felt that attracting talent of Couric's caliber was a priority for Mayer for precisely this reason, and that executives there were “really excited” for what she could bring to the table.

It helps that Couric seems comfortable with a pragmatic approach.

“I think it is an opportunity to continue experimenting and trying new things in an online format … bringing some of the same principles that you see in broadcast journalism to the web,” Couric said.

Couric could be excused for having some confidence in Mayer's approach. The site has recently scooped up talent like The New York Times’ David Pogue, who will lead technology coverage, and the Times’ Matt Bai, who will write about politics.

And the already existing Yahoo-ABC News Network, which combines Yahoo! and ABC News sites, is by far the largest digital news platform on the web, delivering some 2.7 billion pageviews last month, more than CNN Digital and The New York Times combined, according to the bean-counters at Comscore.

 

Capital New York is launching a subscription news service in early 2014. For more information and to get complimentary access, please contact Lauren Englander at lenglander@capitalnewyork.com.