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Couric to Yahoo: Why Hire a Broadcaster in a Narrowcasting World?

What makes a TV star doesn't necessarily make an online star

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Katie Couric
Walter McBride / WireImage / Getty Images

Katie Couric at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Nov. 22, 2013

When the news broke that Katie Couric was going to end her contract with ABC News and become “global anchor” for Yahoo beginning next year, the immediate reaction focused on whether it was a good move — for Couric. Yeah, it was not exactly the career trajectory one might have imagined for her in the ’90s: from the Today Show to CBS Evening News to daytime talk to a search engine’s home page. But far be it from me to get overly snarky about a journalist’s career moves in this day and age. I write for a print magazine! For all I know, we may well all be working for Yelp someday.

Instead, let’s ask: Is it a good move for Yahoo? In one sense, we know too little to say. We don’t know exactly what Couric — who already produces news videos for Yahoo — will be doing. She won’t, she has said, be making either a half-hour network-style news show or a lengthy broadcastlike talk show. We don’t know the scope of the news team Couric will be leading or the precise terms of the deal. (She will be able to keep hosting her syndicated talk show — if, big if, it stays on the air next season.)

We do know Yahoo, like some other online outlets, has been stocking up on high-profile journalists. But while Couric is the biggest of these names, that doesn’t make her the best fit for building an online presence. The pattern lately has been to hire journalists with passionate followings in a specific field. Stats wizard Nate Silver, whom ESPN snatched away from the New York Times, is someone an audience goes to for analysis, number crunching, and predictions in politics and elections (with a side of sports). Glenn Greenwald, around whom eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar is building a new news site from scratch, became famous for his national-security and civil-liberties reporting on the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. David Pogue, who left the New York Times for Yahoo, is synonymous with tech reviews (and musical comedy).

And Couric? Couric is a broadcaster: an accomplished one and a talented one, even if she hasn’t succeeded at everything she’s tried. As Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a Tumblr post welcoming her, she’s done “pivotal coverage of natural disasters and historic elections to the royal wedding and the Olympic Games, groundbreaking interviews with heads of state and leading tastemakers.” She’s grilled Sarah Palin, advocated for cancer screenings and done cooking segments. She isn’t about a subject so much as about an affect: friendliness and empathy, with a little class-president earnestness.

That’s the stuff of a great career — on TV. A morning-show host or an evening-news anchor is kind of like an aggregator, able to bring you something of everything. But successful Web followings are usually built on specificity. TV watchers have learned to turn on a show, lean back, and wait for it to bring you the world; that’s a different behavior than people use online, where the rest of the world is another link or app away. Maybe Couric will do something at Yahoo unlike anything she ever did on TV. (Or, conversely, through set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV, outlets like Yahoo may ultimately aim to make more “TV.”) But if not, does a broadcasting personality translate to a narrowcast medium?

If Couric’s TV career was rocketing upward — instead of having washed out at CBS and seeing soft ratings for her talk show — her deal with Yahoo might be a stunning sign that new media was overtaking the old. Instead, right now it seems more like parity: two big, middle-of-the-road brands, trying to get back to their peak, are making a partnership that may be a little risky for both (or not risky enough). Whether it works may depend on whether the future of the Web looks, more than we expected, like the past of TV.