It’s back to the future time at Yahoo, it seems. The Internet portal/media giant has decided to invest in original content again, embarking on a hiring spree that’s so far added almost a dozen journalists from both traditional print media outlets (like Jane Sasseen from BusinessWeek) and online media entities (like Michael Calderone from Politico) and even opening a bureau in Washington, D.C. Yahoo is also hiring TV veterans, including Anna Robertson, a news producer from “Good Morning America.” Does this strategy spell success for the beleaguered web giant? Only if it goes about it in a very different way from the last time it bet the farm on creating original web content.
Rewind the calendar a few years, and this sounds an awful lot like what Yahoo was doing under Lloyd Braun, the media genius that then-CEO Terry Semel hired to turn what was a portal into a multimedia colossus producing TV-style content and journalism. The company hired dozens of writers, editors and producers for its media unit, and launched some ambitious original content ventures, including a web-based breaking news operation called Hot Zone hosted by former CNN war reporter Kevin Sites.
But the original content train derailed fairly early. As a BusinessWeek piece described it:
Yahoo’s original content endeavors, from celebrity blogs to the online reality shows, have fallen flat or been stuck in development. Web-traffic numbers have stalled on a couple of its media sites. And Yahoo’s media group only hit internal financial targets last year after revising them downward, according to two sources familiar with the media group. “Things at Yahoo just get stuck in Never Never Land,” says an executive at one of Yahoo’s content partners.
Eventually, of course, both Semel and Braun left the company and Yahoo started a long slide that included the return of co-founder Jerry Yang as acting CEO, followed by Carol Bartz, and an on-again, off-again romance with Microsoft around the search business. But even before the recent hiring wave of journalists, there have been signs that Yahoo wanted to get back into the content business in a big way, including a deal with WPP Group to produce advertising-branded TV-style webisodes. As Liz reported in January, Bartz has also said that Yahoo sees its main competition as being television.
There’s no question that Yahoo is already a media force, with a news site that gets close to 45 million unique visitors a month (far more than Google News) and several properties such as Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Entertainment that also pull in fairly huge numbers of users. But the majority of that content comes from media partners, not Yahoo itself — and therein lies part of the problem with the company wanting to become an original content creator: How are the big media entities going to take it when Yahoo starts competing with them by generating its own journalism and other content? They didn’t like it much last time, and that was part of what spelled doom for the strategy.
Yahoo isn’t the only company banking on original content, either: AOL has also been spending wads of cash hiring traditional journalists either away from existing media outlets such as the New York Times (including Saul Hansell, who is running the company’s Seed project) or those who have been laid off in the many waves of downsizing. As of last year, AOL had an estimated 1,500 journalists working for its various properties, and has said that it plans to pour $50 million into a hyper-local news venture called Patch. More recently, however, the company’s media plans have been described by some as “a mess,” complicated by what CEO and former Google executive Tim Armstrong has said is a culture of failure..
The bottom line for Yahoo is that CEO Carol Bartz had better have some new tricks up her sleeve, or her original content bet could wind up on the same flaming pyre along with the vision of Braun and Semel.