Under Marissa Mayer’s leadership, Yahoo keeps making substantial efforts to become a major news media player. Will a couple of well-know bylines and a shiny mobile app do the job? 

A big Silicon Valley player entering the news business has long been the worst nightmare of legacy publishers. Combining an array of high tech products with the ability to get all the talent money can buy, the Valley giant could be truly disruptive. Ten years ago, the ongoing fantasy was Google or a Yahoo gulping the New York Times or another such big media property. For many reasons — economical as well as cultural ones — it didn’t happen. Yahoo once approached NYT’s columnist Thomas Friedman, offering him a hefty pay raise to become its star writer. But the Times’ globo-pundit quickly backed off when he realized that most of his reputation –  as arguable as it can be (see the cruel Tom Friedman OpEd Generator) — was tied to his employer. Yahoo and others put the issue at rest for years, focusing on core challenges: survival for Yahoo and global domination for Google.

Until now.

Last year, we first witnessed a significant move from the tech galaxy: Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post by. As mentioned in the Monday Note (see the Memos To Jeff series), Amazon’s technical firepower will undoubtedly exert a transformative — rather than merely incremental — impact on the Post. Further, I guess this will end up being a welcome stimulus for the entire industry, it really needs a tech kick in its sagging backside.

Then came the Yahoo initiatives. Last fall, Marissa Mayer, snatched three visible talents from the New York Times: Megan Liberman, until then the Times’ deputy news editor, was appointed Yahoo News editor in chief; Mayer also tapped iconic tech columnist David Pogue; a month later, she picked the Times’ chief political correspondent Matt Bai. Finally, on November 25th, Marissa Mayer announced that she hired former TV host Katie Couric as the portal’s “global anchor”.

Here we are: Expect Yahoo to simultaneously enter three major information segments: General audience programming with Katie Couric’s show; political and national issues; and tech coverage (in addition to the classical Food site). Logically, Yahoo started with the tech side. Pogue himself introduced Yahoo Tech on stage at CES last week — and didn’t pass up the opportunity to blast its competitors, mocking their nerdy and obscure language. Interface wise, I found the site pretty clever with its one page, endless scrolling structure — a trend to be noticed –  and articles showcased in about 120 tiles (approx 7 tiles x 18 rows), each expanding as needed and keeping its own URL, which is essential for social sharing uses.

Regardless of David Pogue’s ability to put a the human face on technology, Yahoo Tech is entering an increasingly crowded segment. This month, the Wall Street Journal rolled out WSJD, set to take Walt Mossberg’s and Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD slot, itself reborn as Re/Code (can’t find a geekier name), operated by the same duo. The Re/Code money machine will be the already sold-out Code Conference and its offsprings. WSJD features potent editorial firepower with no less than 50 writers on deck.

Marissa Mayer made no mystery of the fact that her editorial initiatives will be directed at Yahoo’s #1 priority, “the company’s commitment to mobile”. When she landed at Yahoo, Mayer was dismayed to discover that everyone received a Blackberry. Now, the company wants to board every relevant ecosystem, starting with iOS and Android.

That’s what Yahoo does with its interesting NewsDigest App for iOS, launched at CES. As its tech web site does, the mobile app focuses on a series of hot trends. First of all, with its truncated structure, the app borrows a lot from Circa (see a previous Monday Note); it also inherits technology developed by Summly, the startup it acquired in March last year (merely five months after the app’s launch). Summly’s core idea is a news summarizing algorithm. The NewsDigest iteration does actually much more than condensing stories: In a neat interface, it creates context by slicing coverage as follows:
–Image gallery
–Infographics
–Maps
–Stock charts
–Main Twitter feeds
–Video
–Wikipedia
…plus a set of references if you want more.

For a story picked up yesterday, it looks like this:

304_yahoo_news

Evidently, there is room for improvement. Weirdly enough, the app is updated only twice a day and carries less than ten stories. Both elements go against the idea of a smartphone app supposed to update on a permanent and to provide content in an endless stream. Plus, automated as it is, the prose can’t quite compete for a Pulitzer Prize. But, if Yahoo decides to hand the key ingredients over to a competent editorial team, the NewsDigest could become a really good product.

Coming back to this column’s main topic, I believe Yahoo is really up to something in the news sector:
– Yahoo enjoys huge traction in the mobile world: According to Marissa Mayer, among the 800 million people who access Yahoo every month (excluding Tumbler), roughly 400 million reach the portal through their mobile phone. (Despite that number, one irritating thing: Yahoo made its app available to the US AppStore only, ignoring the hundreds millions of English-speaking users on other shores, East and West of Sunnyvale, California.)
– Unlike with Google’s mobile strategy, Yahoo is free from Android’s strategic goals and from a difficult relationship with Apple. It can therefore play the two ecosystems equally, opening the potential for one to gain leverage against the other.
– Even better, by last week acquiring Aviate, an Android customizing interface layer, Yahoo can now create its own branded experience on top of the standard Android interface.
– Assuming it enters the news business for good, Yahoo will act like a tech company, not a legacy media one. In other words, it will first build a sizable audience for its news ecosystem while deliberately ignoring the revenue side as long as needed. Then, it will optimize and datamine this user base to understand in the most granular way what works and what doesn’t. Having successfully gone through those steps, Yahoo will then transform the (hopefully vast) newly acquired audience into a money machine.
This is the way it works nowadays.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

@filloux