Yahoo is on the verge of hiring more traditional journalists as it plans to aggressively beef up original content for its top verticals, including news, business and entertainment. Yet the fact that the portal is already the Web’s biggest publisher, driven by a successful mass-market aggregation formula, has left many to wonder, what’s the aggregation king doing hiring a bunch of reporters and editors?
“Historically, our content has been from third parties, and a lot of it has been commodity news,” said Jimmy Pitaro, vp, Yahoo Media. Even though Yahoo News reaches more than 40 million monthly unique users (per Nielsen), “it’s very hard to sell,” said Pitaro. “The idea is that voice is important. We are going to build out an identity and personality for Yahoo’s content.”
That identity has already begun taking shape as Yahoo has hired a handful of journalism veterans to expand on Yahoo News, including former WashingtonPost.com editor Russ Walker, the site’s new political editor; Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo, who is assembling a team of news-hungry bloggers; and ABC News veteran Anna Robertson, now Yahoo News’ director of multimedia and social media.
Pitaro said that several other hires are imminent, as Yahoo looks to add more human editorial talent to its entertainment, finance and lifestyle divisions.
Sports has stood out among Yahoo’s properties since 2006, when it hired former Los Angeles Times editor Dave Morgan and started regularly breaking news. “That got us taken seriously,” said Pitaro. “You’ll see that strategy [replicated] in our core vehicles.” To that end, Yahoo has recently brought on Courtney Reimer, formerly of MTV Networks, to head up a group of yet-to-be-named entertainment blogs that will be modeled after Yahoo Sports’ individual league blogs, such as the NBA-centric Ball Don’t Lie.
“A phrase we use a lot is high-low,” she said, pointing to Entertainment Weekly’s balance of “speaking intelligently but not ‘alienatingly.’”
Users should start seeing changes in Yahoo News’ political coverage this summer. But while there will be more original content, Yahoo isn’t ditching licensed fare. “One goal is to be a better aggregator,” said Walker. “A lot of the content that flows into our site hasn’t been smartly organized and positioned….some of it is just a bunch of feeds. We think we can smartly surface stories people are passionate about. We want to create a destination that brings back repeat visitors.”
That’s a tougher task in the age of social media. “Fewer people are actually going to a Web site for news,” observed Robertson. “A lot of times Twitter is more valuable than the morning paper for some people.”
Thus, one of Robertson’s core jobs will be to actively seed Yahoo content on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, while looking to further develop Yahoo News’ voice by consistently encouraging users to comment and participate on the site.
Digital buyers see Yahoo’s goal of creating a more distinct edit voice as wise — though challenging. The knock has always been that Yahoo is great at delivering reach but lags in engagement (in March, Yahoo News averaged 14.5 minutes of time spent per user, versus nearly 26 minutes for CNN.com). “And these days, with the ad networks, I can get mass anywhere,” said one prominent agency exec.
Given the explosion in ad networks and exchanges, Yahoo may be preparing itself for a radically different sales market, speculated Andrea Kerr Redniss, svp, managing director at Optimedia. “If five years down the road, you can pretty much buy any standard ad unit [on an exchange], the real craft will become integrated sponsorships. If that is what people are going to be paying a premium for, you’ve gotta have your own content.”
Besides text, Yahoo is planning more original video series. Recently, Yahoo News bowed the daily Toyota-sponsored series Who Knew? The portal has quietly compiled more than 20 originals (all profitable, says Pitaro), and plans are in the works for 10 to 20 more this year.
Like Who Knew?, the concepts of those shows will be guided by Yahoo’s massive data on its audience’s surfing and search habits. “We’re maximizing that asset,” said Pitaro.
That’s miles from the disastrous Lloyd Braun era, when Yahoo was seeking to recreate TV-like hits. Said Kerr Redniss: “Yahoo is really starting to figure out [the] way its audience wants to view video.”
See also: “Rise of the Generators”