Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is Katie Couric the Future or Did Yahoo Just Screw Up Again?

I don’t like to watch videos on my computer. That’s why I have a television.

But sometimes, I’m forced to. When UConn opened their disastrous 2013 football season, I needed to flip up my laptop and watch the fiasco stream through my computer thanks to ESPN3.com.

pretty katie couric
I watch videos all the time on YouTube – falling down the same rabbit holes we all do in 2013. I begin with one Rock trailer and end up watching The Rock wrestling on WWF Monday Night Raw from 1998. I watch a new music video and end up, somehow, at Angels of the Silences. I try to find a highlight from last week’s games and end up watching the mesmerizing intro to the 1970 Orange Bowl.

I watch videos on my computer during the workday all the time. I stream my CEO’s appearances. I watch news segments pertaining to the news industry.

So I watch a lot on my computer. Yet I don’t think I do and I certainly don’t choose to. When I’m home, when I’m on my couch, I much prefer to watch my high-def television to my laptop screen.

Or do I?

All of these thoughts ran through my head as I read the announcement that Yahoo had signed Katie Couric as its Global Anchor – who really knows what that means. The response from fellow Yahoo writers, particularly from the college football division that I see on Twitter, was of pure joy.

My initial reaction was to draft a tweet mocking Couric for her swift fall from the public eye. Less than a decade ago, she was the anchor of the nation’s most popular morning show. Less than five years ago, she was the first woman anchoring evening news on broadcast.

Now, she’s hosting a syndicated, afternoon talk show and joining Yahoo for a vague, undefined role.
But I never hit send on that tweet because I don’t want people to mock me for it if this partnership works out for Yahoo.

As a sports nut, I know the type of excellent editorial work the company has done in sports – especially Charles Robinson’s investigative work that led to the massive Miami scandal, which eventually became a massive NCAA scandal.

But Charles Robinson, in the grand scheme of things, means little. The fate of Marissa Meyer and the Yahoo brand does not rise or fall based on its sports department. Robinson could find another job. Yahoo would exist without him.

Katie Couric, though, is a different game entirely. This is a woman who carries an enormous brand – a name value nearly unmatched in the news world, particularly compared to other females. Is there a more well-known female journalist?

Does that matter?

When Couric moved to the CBS Evening News, her ratings did not show the same prowess that she had while at Today – while at Today, ratings remained strong due to her replacement.

Does Katie Couric have an audience? Does any journalist in news truly have an audience?

We have seen a change in the past 10 years – first driven by cable news, and then exacerbated by social media – to personality-driven news coverage. CNN doesn’t cover the news in primetime – Anderson Cooper does. MSNBC doesn’t discuss the politics of the night – Rachel Maddow does.

What have we learned?

We have learned consistently and constantly that the news drives ratings, over and over and over. We see ratings go up during elections – we see them crater during slow news cycles. We see people flock to cable news in the wake of tragedy, while largely ignoring it otherwise.

Is the landscape of news really changing?

As the Communications Director for the Newspaper Association of America, I see all the stats, I get all the questions and I field all the theories. Based on the number of articles written about social media, you would assume that every adult in the world gets its news from Twitter.

In reality, according to Pew Research, the number is 8 percent.

That number seems low, right?

During the Kansas/Duke basketball game earlier this month, Andrew Wiggins – the superstar from Kansas and heralded as a possible heir to LeBron – was trending. My mobile app had recently gotten an upgrade and it told me (why, I have no idea) how many tweets about Wiggins there were to make him trending. It said 5,000.

5,000? That’s it? We would find out later that 3 million people watched the game. 5,000 is such a tiny fraction of that audience – and who knows how many of that Twitter number were actually even watching.

The YouTube Music Awards were supposed to mark a huge step in the evolution of YouTube as a true alternative to television. There was a huge buzz prior to the show, with 60 million votes allegedly cast and 10+ million views on the clip announcing the show.

As the show aired, AdAge counted on average about 200,000 people watching. The MTV Video Music Awards had drawn 10 million. The streaming show was a failure, a bomb and, now, a historical footnote.

What makes the move of Couric to Yahoo so head-scratching is the age-skewing of news coverage – the average age of a Fox News viewer is 65, CNN is 63 and MSNBC is 59.

If you want to attract a digital audience, why would you go after the people least likely to watch content online? Do Meyer and Yahoo believe that the addition of a 56-year old news anchor is going to bring my parents to the Internet and away from their television – or somehow engage the youth of America in a way it has shown absolutely no interest in so far?

If you’re curious about my answer to the headline, I have none because I am so thoroughly confused by the motives on both ends. Unless her salary is astronomical, I don’t know why Couric would forsake a platform like television for an ancient, in Internet years, company. Unless her salary is non-existent, I don’t know why Yahoo would take such a bold move on building a digital news outlet online.

The biggest problem with Yahoo’s splash hire is what lies ahead for the debut. Today, the news is sunshine and roses and free publicity, such as this blog post from yours truly. Yahoo was a dead brand not less than 2 years ago, so maybe the Couric is hire if only to inject life and grab headlines again.

Yet when Couric begins her job in early 2014, the early returns will be heavily scrutinized. Whatever she is able to produce, whatever viewership follows her online, will be miniscule compared to her television days and those will be a round of headlines Yahoo must be dreading.

In 2023, Couric’s hiring may be lauded as the moment online news took the next step and started its evolution into a mainstream force.

Or, like the YouTube Music Awards, it will fade away, rendered as nothing more than a historical footnote and another string of failures written on Yahoo’s tombstone.

What do you think is going to happen?

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