Nicholas Carlson’s piece in The New York Times Magazine this week attempts to answer the question: “What happened when Marissa Mayer tried to be Steve Jobs?” It’s a blistering critique, characterizing Mayer as a kind of Marie Antoinette among the digerati.
The story of Yahoo is an important one in the epic collision between journalism and the Internet. After all, Yahoo was really the first major disruptor, having licensed the Reuters newswire and created a free, fast, updated, Internet-friendly news service even before The New York Times started nytimes.com. This set the stage for free news online. This story is told well by three Riptide interviewees, each of whom played a material role in Yahoo’s early years: Art Kern (an early Yahoo director); Mike Moritz (an early Yahoo investor); and David Graves, a former Reuters executive who helped broker the Yahoo News deal. For anyone interested in Yahoo, all of these interviews are worth a read.
Kern, in particular, identifies the central challenge that the company faced soon after it was founded:
…this question of, is Yahoo a media company or is it a technology company, was both the great opportunity for Yahoo and also it’s greatest millstone. By having to be both for so long, it slowed the company down in many, many, ways and we can come back to that. That was a central problem for the company. So, in any event, on the human being side no one intended for Yahoo to originate content. We were an aggregator. We saw ourselves as the place to kind of get this chaotic Wild West web thing organized for you.
This sums-up almost perfectly the central dilemma in news today: Journalism companies have historically viewed technology in a supporting role. Journalists are the stars. New age news companies like Buzzfeed and Vox elevate technology into a kind of co-starring (or, in some cases, even starring) status described well by Jonathan Glick in his very good ReCode post, The Rise of The Platisher. Typically, the purpose of this technology integration is to align with the dominant distribution platforms of our era: namely, Google and Facebook. But the result of this confluence has not been better journalism; on the contrary, it has been mostly viral nonsense.
Jonah Peretti, the king of this new realm, says something very interesting about Mayer’s schizoid tech/media strategy in the Carlson piece:
“I just think it is a strategic mistake to take on big media where they are strongest,” Jonah Peretti, the C.E.O. of Buzzfeed, wrote me in an email earlier this year, referring to her focus on stars, scripted shows and glossy content.
This begs the critical question: Can Yahoo be turned into the world’s largest Platisher? Because the clear implication of what Peretti writes is to take-on “big media” where they are weakest — and that’s in the tight integration of media and technology, not in the kind of dual personality that Mayer has crafted. Today, Yahoo is neither fish nor fowl. Let’s not forget that Peretti’s theory of quality journalism – a kind of subsidy model where the mass light pays for the quality heavy – is at the heart of his ambition. Couldn’t that work perfectly at Yahoo?
Cynics might argue that Jonah Peretti yearns to be David Karp. I disagree. I think his ambitions are much bigger. Regardless, the question remains whether Jonah Peretti might wind-up as Marissa Mayer’s Arianna Huffington. Ditch the two Google people, relocate the business to New York, put Huffington and Paretti back together again, move Eric Hippeau into the CEO seat and assign Ken Lerer to the lead director role. Okay, just kidding.
In truth, I think the Carlson article ended in exactly the right place. Quoting N.Y.U Professor Aswath Damodaran, Carlson summarizes as follows:
“Sometimes,” Damodaran told me, “companies have to act their age.” For Yahoo, embracing its maturity means settling for a business that earns close to $1 billion in profit every year. It has outlasted other formerly iconic Internet portals, from AltaVista to Excite, and even dwarfs more recent web sensations like Myspace and Ask.com. For a company that started out as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” that’s not a bad way to grow old.
Yahoo was the original news disruptor. Clearly, in the end, it will not be its savior.