One of the lingering risks about Yahoo, given Terry Semel’s Tinseltown roots, is that the company will lean too far toward becoming a “content company”–and thus wreck a business model that is more powerful than that of any content company on the planet. Last year’s hiring of Lloyd Braun, a television bigwig, seemed another lurch down this misguided path, especially when Braun began jawboning about launching TV-like “shows.”
The Internet industry experimented with “shows” back in the Dark Ages (1995), and immediately abandoned them–because Internet users don’t want to watch “shows.” So Braun’s background and plans seemed cause for alarm.
Well, according to Saul Hansell in the NYT, Braun has, thankfully, seen the light, and has scaled back his more ambitious proprietary-content plans. He says now that Yahoo!-created content will just be the icing on the cake, which is probably the right way to think about it (Google’s no-content strategy leaves it less able to exploit display advertising, rich media, member-based marketing, and other models that Yahoo! is building into real businesses).
The NYT story also tangentially raises one issue that Yahoo! is going to have to solve. A Yahoo! spokeswoman is quoted as saying that Yahoo! is pleased with the recent Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone series because of “the positioning it gives Yahoo News as a serious news brand.” And there’s the problem. Because “Yahoo! News” is not a serious news brand, and probably never will be. About the best it can hope for is to continue to be a serious news aggregation brand, which is actually more valuable from a business perspective.
A brand like “Yahoo!” (or, for that matter, “Google”) would have major mountains to climb before it could ever be considered a “serious news brand”–and the first question to ask is why it would want to become one. There is a reason Yahoo! (and Google) are worth more than most of the “serious news brands” put together. (The reason is that gathering and reporting “serious news” is expensive, time-consuming, and, unfortunately, largely a commodity business). Yahoo! would be far better off continuing to promote its branded-content partners, including Kevin Sites, Reuters, AP, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, etc. as the serious news brands, rather than trying to make “Yahoo! News” eventually conjure up a similar image of journalistic history and excellence.