Just What Is Yahoo Anymore, Anyway?

The company has just hired Katie Couric, the latest in a long list of high-profile defections from other media outlets, including The New York Times. But what is Yahoo, exactly? Media analyst and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis joins host Scott Simon to explain.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Yahoo.com has acquired a new star. Katie Couric will join the company as its new global anchor. She joins a number of other high-profile journalists. Yahoo also earlier this year bought the popular micro-blogging site Tumblr. Now, what do all these purchases and appointments mean for a company that many people still think of as a search engine, an email service, or a home page? What is Yahoo? Jeff Jarvis is a media analyst and professor at the City University of New York, the Graduate School of Journalism there, and he joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEFF JARVIS: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: So, what has Yahoo bought? What's it trying to become?

JARVIS: We're not sure yet. Marissa Mayer, the head of Yahoo, is a brilliant strategic thinker about online, having being raised at Google. And I think we're beginning to see the bare, slight visions of what her strategy is. And she's also going to try to stay, as Yahoo has tried to be over a few generations, a media company.

SIMON: Meaning what? They actually create content?

JARVIS: Yeah. I'm not sure it's such a great business but, yes. In hiring Katie Couric, they've hired a name and tried to establish a bigger brand as online. The cynical interpretations are that Katie ran out of networks and that Yahoo, you know, tries to get - borrow on the equity of old media. But I prefer to think that if you put Katie Couric and Marissa Mayer together, my hope is that they can reinvent TV news, because it sure needs reinventing.

SIMON: In what ways would you hope they would reinvent it?

JARVIS: Well, I think Katie is really good at loving the camera and knowing how to talk to people as people online, and I think that Marissa Mayer understands technology very well. My hope is that they can get past all the stupid conventions of TV news, you know, somebody standing up in front of a fire where nothing has happened in 12 hours because we have to have somebody standing there.

Online, you have the opportunities to connect witnesses and opinions from all around the world instantly. You can rethink the conventions of news for mobile, for long-term talk, for short little snippets. TV news can break out of its straightjacket. You know, print media has been trying to do that with the Web, trying to find new forms and new business models and new relationships with the public. Well, now it's time for TV news to rethink itself, and I have a lot of respect for Katie Couric and for Marissa Mayer. So, I'm hoping that they don't just try to bring old TV into this new medium, but instead show old TV how it could be done. But that's optimistic.

SIMON: Does Yahoo suffer from AOL's problem, which, as I understand it, kind of translates to despite the fact that they're new technology, a lot of people consider them old media?

JARVIS: Yahoo, I've been saying for years, is the last old media company. In its prior lives, it still tried to operate by the old media business model of let's get a lot of audience and let's slap a lot of ads in front of their eyeballs. Whereas Google understands that they need to treat us as individuals. What Google has taught us is that it can listen to our behavior with our permission and then give us relevance in return.

And let's not forget that that's the heritage that Marissa Mayer comes from; understanding how to make search at Google ever more personal, ever more relevant. If she can do the same thing with news and make it more relevant to you, so that it's not a one-size-fits-all product anymore, that could be a big advance in the form.

SIMON: So, let's say in a year or two the president of the United States has what - I don't know if it's a tradition - but often he will have lunch with the major network actors. Does Katie Couric have lunch at that same table?

JARVIS: Well, there's two questions there. One, is whether that is the judgment of importance in news. I think that we have to get out of the access game. But I still understand your question, which is will Yahoo be a presence in news as much as the other networks? It might take a while, but there's no reason it couldn't be. You know, there's a great, great blog called SCOTUSblog that covers the Supreme Court like no one else and they are struggling right now to get a credential to the Supreme Court. They do great coverage, highly specialized. And we've got to get past this idea that only big, old institutions are journalistic institutions. We have to work collaboratively with all kinds of new players.

SIMON: Jeff Jarvis, media analyst and professor of journalism joining us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JARVIS: Thank you, Scott.

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SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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