yahoo

Is Yahoo serious about media?

 

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

 

Yahoo: The Marissa Mayer Turnaround

 

Critics spew well-meaning generalities when criticizing Marissa Mayer’s first moves at Yahoo! They fail to see the urgency of the company’s turnaround situation, the need to refocus the workforce and spruce up the management.

Last July, Yahoo! elected a new CEO, their seventh or eight, I’ve lost count. Marissa Mayer is an ex-Google exec with a BS in symbolics systems and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, just like Scott Forstall. After a 13-year career at the biggest Cloud company on Earth, Mayer brings relevant experience to the CEO position of the once-great Web company. She also happens to be female but, unlike a predecessor of the same gender, Mayer doesn’t appear to feel the need to assert power by swearing like a sailor.

Power she asserts nonetheless. Barely pausing to deliver her first child, Mayer set to work: Yahoo! apps were too many, she vowed to cut them from 60 to the dozen or so that support our “digital daily habit“. Hiring standards have been seriously upgraded, the CEO wants to review every candidate to weed out “C-list slackers“. People were shown the door, starting in the executive suite. Some were replaced by ex-Google comrades such as her newly-appointed COO, Henrique De Castro.

The changes have been met with intramural criticism, from charges of Google cronyism to moaning over her meddling with the hiring process (“Yahoo’s Mayer gets internal flak for more rigorous hiring“). The complainers might as well get used to it: Mayer knows who she’s competing against, she wants to win, and that means Yahoo! needs to attract Valley-class talent. If she can pull them from Google, even better. The insiders who complain to the media only advertise their fear — a bad idea — and unwittingly make the case for Mayer’s higher standards.

The new sheriff is a high-intensity person. Friends tell me she also reviews new apps in great detail, down to color choices. (Didn’t another successful leader so annoy people?)

The protests over Mayer’s hiring practices and (supposed) micromanagement are nothing compared to the howls of pain over Mayer’s most controversial decision: No more Working From Home.

The prohibition is an affront to accepted beliefs about white-collar productivity, work/life balance, working mothers, sending less CO2 into the atmosphere. Does Mayer oppose a balanced life and a greener planet?

No, presumably — but reality intrudes. Once the king of the Web, Yahoo! stood by and watched as Google and Facebook seduced their users and advertisers. In 2008, in an effort to bolster its flagging on-line fortunes, Microsoft offered more than $44B to acquire Yahoo. The Board nixed the deal and Yahoo! kept sinking. Right before Mayer took the helm in July 2012, Yahoo’s market cap hovered around $16B, a decline of more than 60%.

The niceties of peacetime prosperity had to go. Unlike her “explicit” predecessor, Mayer doesn’t stoop to lash out at the protesters but one can imagine what she thinks: “Shut up, you whiners. This is a turnaround, not a Baja California cruise!”

In the Valley, WFH has long been controversial. In spite of its undeniable benefits, too-frequent abuses led to WFH becoming a euphemism for goofing off, or for starting a software business on one’s employer’s dime, an honored tradition.

Telecommuting requires a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection from your computer at home to the company’s servers. These systems keep a traffic log, a record of who connects, from what IP address, when, for how long, how much data, and so on. Now, picture a CEO from the Google tradition of data analysis. She looks at the VPN logs and sees too much “comfort”, to be polite.

Mayer did what leaders do: She made a decision that made some people unhappy in order to achieve success for the whole enterprise (toned-up employees and shareholders). After seeing Yahoo! lose altitude year after year, the criticism leveled at Mayer makes me optimistic about the company’s future: Mayer’s treatment hurts where it needs to.

Among the many critics of Mayer’s no-WHF decision, the one I find most puzzling — or is it embarrassing? — emanates from the prestigious Wharton School of Business (at the University of Pennsylvania). In a Knowledge@Wharton article, scholars make sage but irrelevant comments such as:

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer’s all-encompassing policy change. “Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work,” notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project. “You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem.”

Nowhere in the article do the Wharton scholars consider the urgency of Yahoo’s situation, nor do they speculate that perhaps Mayer didn’t like what she found in the VPN logs. And, speaking of numbers, the Wharton experts provide no numbers, no sample size, no control group to buttress their statements. Our well-meaning academics might want to take a look at a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the prolific creator of corpocrat-skewering Dilbert cartoons. Titled Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit, the post vigorously delivers what the title promises, as in this paragraph:

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work. 

Or this one, closer to today’s topic [emphasis mine]:

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of on-line shoe store Zappos, isn’t a blogger, cartoonist, or academic theoretician; he leads a very successful company that’s admired for its customer-oriented practices (culture, if you will). In this Business Insider piece, titled Here’s Why I Don’t Want My Employees To Work From Home, Hsieh is unequivocal about the value of Working From Work [emphasis mine]:

Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favors for each other because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.

Who in good conscience believes that Mayer’s edict is absolute and permanent? You have a sick child at home, will you be granted the permission to work from home for a few days? Of course. Or, you’re an asocial but genius coder, will you be allowed to code at home from 10 pm to 7 am? Again, yes. Mayer saw it done, with good results, at her previous company.

With Mayer’s guidance, the patient has been stabilized and is on the road to recovery. But where does that road lead to? What does Yahoo! want to be now that it’s starting to act like a grownup? A better portal, a place to which we gravitate because, as an insider says, we’ll find more relevant fodder — without relying on “friends”? This would be a return to Yahoo’s original mission, one of cataloguing the Web, only with better technology and taste than Facebook, Google, AOL or even Microsoft’s Bing (Yahoo’s supplier of search data).

This leads to the $$ question, to Yahoo’s business model: advertising or services? With Google and now Facebook dominating the advertising space, how much room is left?

We hear Mayer is focusing Yahoo! on mobile applications. This sounds reasonable… but isn’t everyone?

In the search for a renewed identity (and profits), the question of alliances comes up. Who’s my enemy, my enemy’s enemy, irreplaceable partner/supplier, natural complement? In this regard, the Microsoft question will undoubtedly pop up again. I doubt Mayer has the utmost regard for Microsoft or for its CEO’s bullying style, but can she live without Bing? Is there an alternative? Also, what, if anything, could a healthier Yahoo! offer to Facebook or Apple?

The fun is just starting.

JLG@mondaynote.com