Breakfast at the Grille: Semel Speaks, A Lot

No, we’re not starting a new regular feature from the glass-encased Bryant Park bistro. But wow. What a room. This morning’s media breakfast had as many media bold-faced names as we see at the best Lunch at Michael’s. All gathered to hear, and ask questions of Yahoo chief Terry Semel, whom New Yorker writer Ken Auletta asked the very questions on everyone’s minds — even if he did softball the tone of a few of them (Chinese dissidents, Lloyd Braun, Web 2.0 tech…). Semel answered each at great length. (The longer your answer, the fewer questions can be squeezed in, after all, when you’ve got a hard-and-fast 9:30 cutoff point.)

Things we learned.

  • Semel does not:

    — plan to have Yahoo! leave China, and he doesn’t want anyone else in the media to, either. He does agonize over what effect anything he does there will have on the 1,000 or so Yahoo employees. He makes the case that you have to follow laws, or the government might take retribution against your folks. And he thinks it’s the U.S. government’s job to step in in a big way.

    — plan to join a Google lawsuit accusing Microsoft with its new Windows platform of making it too easy to find MSN (which is behind Google and Yahoo in search) and too hard to find other stuff, like all of Yahoo’s applications. He figures if users are using Yahoo for lots of personalized stuff (like email, and storing photos and what-not), they’ll just find Yahoo again.

    — plan to get in a major way into the content business. There’s plenty of content out there. When folks planned something that looked like a reality show, Semel kyboshed it. “Excuse me, but isn’t that television?” he says he said. “Why should Yahoo do television? … Television does a very good job (of doing what it does). In this medium, it’s better to do something new” including interactivity. We wonder how long we’ll still see Braun — the former ABC TV exec who was written about when he joined a year ago as on the road to making Yahoo a big content creator — on the Yahoo payroll.

  • Semel, when asked his biggest mistake, kind of did the job interview technique of saying things that seem like mistakes really turned out to work well. He noted that he was kind of offered Google when they were “a tiny little thing” with revenues of something like $7 million from Yahoo (technology licensing) and not much else, and they wanted a billion dollars, then three billion, and they didn’t want to sell anyway. He also said he wasn’t going to take shots at Google but did note that their strength is really only search, while Yahoo has not only search, which they introduced in a major way about a year and a half ago, but also lots of other applications. (See MSN, above.) We’ve read, for example, that Yahoo hosts more small business Web sites (at $11.95 on up) than any other company. We’re glad Auletta pressed him on this one. (His first answer to his “biggest mistake” was a minutes-long list of successes.)

  • Semel hadn’t heard of (Our chief, Laurel, asked, then got him to pose for a photo.) She asked in the context of the “Answers” application Yahoo is trying out, which he calls “social
    search” connecting people to people with answers, instead of to machines. “Is Web search the killer app, or did it just happen to be the first?” he asks. He also talks about the new-ish stuff they’re doing along those lines and predicts that a year from now video will “populate” the Web as much as text does now.

  • When a company in Pasadena offered $75 million to get Yahoo to let them handle search “monetization” Semel told his team not to question it, told ’em to go ahead, get $100 million up front. They ended up making $200 million. Yahoo made a concerted effort to become #2 in search, after Google took the top spot. It succeeded.
  • Media’s not just about having the best content and the best distribution. Now, “you have to have great technology,” too. Which is a large part of why, he says, 500 million of 1 billion people on the Internet touch Yahoo, 230 million of them active, registered users.
  • Jeff Jarvis questions whether we need a Yahoo to moderate the discussion at all, when bloggers can all just merrily do their own thing and reach their audiences. Semel, who didn’t seem to know who the man who’s approaching stardom in the blogosphere was, pointed out that maybe someday if Jarvis wanted to, say, make some money on his site, he could run some ads Yahoo or someone else would provide. (Jarvis has written at some length about taking ads on his site.)
  • Others who stood up to ask questions also included CBS digital honcho Larry Kramer, Jamie Paillot of CondéNet, the Daily NewsLloyd Grove,

    You can watch video of the event on the New Yorker Web site. (Sponsored by Tiffany. Woh.)

    Other luminaries we saw included: Time mag’s Jim Kelly sitting next to Kramer, Bob Sauerberg of Condé Nast, AP chief Tom Curley (very personable as always), Douglas McCormick of iVillage, MPA’s Howard Polskin (thanks for the tix the other night), New Yorker publisher Louis Cona. On the list but we didn’t see with our own eyes: Maria Batiromo, Nora Ephron, Sarah Chubb of CondéNet, Jack Myers, Ruth Reichl, Newsweek’s Steven Levy, Maurie Perl of Condé Nast, which co-sponsored the event. Lots of the money folks at Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and elsewhere who grease the media wheels.

    What a room. If the roof collapsed, we would’ve lost half the media management in New York. And we’re not listing the half of it.

    The fresh berries and yogurt were very nice, by the way. Thanks to Peter Kafka of, Ritsuko Ando of Reuters and assorted other kind folks at the table giving us napkins to clean them up off our lap when we did the classic water knocks-over-pitcher, falls onto cup, knocks over plate, spills everything in 1,000 directions routine.