COLUMN-If Katie Couric is the answer, what's the question?
By Jack Shafer
Nov 27 (Reuters) - Web publishing - never a diffident business - has been calling attention to itself all week long. Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, whose forte as boss has been the shimmering acquisition (Summly, Tumblr, Xobni, Rockmelt, et al.) and the high-profile media hire (David Pogue, Megan Liberman, Matt Bai), signed Katie Couric as the site's "global anchor," and promised additional Yahoo News signings, enabling Couric to "lead a growing team of correspondents." Business Insider auteur Henry Blodget, whose enthusiasm for himself approaches the onanistic, responded to Michael Wolff's suggestion that the Insider has peaked and that he should sell with a column saying he wasn't ready to bail. Further down the food chain, Politico, which recently dumped its broadcast TV stations, purchased Capital New York, and PandoDaily (backed by Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Tony Hsieh, and others) bought NSFWCORP to, as its Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy put it, "double down on investigative reporting."
All this recent activity could be interpreted as the Internet's usual background noise - prestige hires, quietly dumped in the next business downturn, and the usual activity by sites testing their worth in the marketplace or actually selling out. Or, alongside the global expansion of BuzzFeed, the phenomenal growth of Gawker, and Cheezburger-Circa's blitzkrieg, do these nuggets serve as new markers of the Web ascendency to a place of media dominance?
As someone with a vested interest in the Web's success, I'm prepared to interpret the setting of the sun as an indicator that the Internet was causing all the other media forms to go dark. But it's not just me: The speed with which Google transitioned from a university research project to a media colossus impels the belief that the complete eclipse of traditional media is unstoppable. In about a dozen years, Google has reordered the media cosmos: It will take in 33 percent of all global digital ad revenue - approximately $38.6 billion - this year, six times that of the first runner-up, Facebook, according to eMarketer. It will also collect more than 50 percent of all mobile advertising. Its annual ad revenues now surpass those of the entire newspaper industry (as well as the entire magazine industry), as Business Insider recently informed us. "The growth of internet advertising revenue has outpaced other media every year since 2005," Marketing Land reported earlier this year, with the Internet vying with domestic broadcast TV for ad revenue primacy.
When you're thirsty, your best bet is to go to where you see water flowing. When your desire turns to ad revenue, you'd be similarly wise to place yourself near the flow, which increasingly has become the Web. That goes a long way to explain the exuberance, not all that irrational, for Internet things. As Reuters' Jennifer Saba recently reported, investors are swarming like fire ants to dump money into digital start-ups. Compare that to the $250 million Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post. The last investments in BuzzFeed lent the company a valuation of $200 million. Vox - publisher of SB Nation and The Verge - just bought Curbed Network, which runs blogs devoted to real estate, food, and fashion. Machinima, the YouTube gaming channel, is valued at around $190 million.
The difference between the current enthusiasm for Internet things compared to the 1999 bubble that popped is that nobody denies the velocity or ultimate direction of the ad revenue arrow. Oh, part of the enthusiasm might have to do with the ever-expanding social-media bubble, but when ink-stained loyalists like the Post's Donald Graham surrender their printer's aprons to Internet barbarians like Bezos, the new bubble starts to look more like a rising moon.
I decline all invitations to read much into Yahoo's new hires until Mayer reveals a grand strategy for her news division. The main reason she has millions to throw at acquisitions and talented journalists is a stock that has doubled in the past year, driven by Yahoo's stake in Alibaba, not Mayer's genius. The cynic in me believes the Pogue, Liberman, Bai, and Couric additions are largely designed to produce positive press for the Yahoo name. The company, audience leader among the desktop computer crowd, knows that the audience is moving to mobile, hence Mayer's pronouncement last week of a "mobile first" strategy. Yahoo has as good a shot as anybody in attracting those who need to check their mail, stocks, weather, games, maps, and sports scores while on the go. But I don't see what the mobile first makeover has to do with the Pogue, Liberman, Bai, and Couric additions.
For all its upstart posture, Yahoo shares with the New York Times the problem of being anchored to a legacy media that is in perpetual systemic decline: Audiences and advertisers are moving from the desktop to mobile and from print to digital. It is the lumbering U.S.S. Enterprise surrounded by too many well-armed, killer speedboats like BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Machinima. The company's size only encourages attacks on its best businesses, and as stalwart as the Pogue and Couric gang are, speed and maneuverability usually win battles.
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