Those outraged that Yahoo is killing original content are a bit late to the party

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Sources are telling Business Insider that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is considering killing -- or at least greatly diminishing-- Yahoo's original content in favor of more user-generated and aggregated content.

Some people are up in arms that Mayer would kill what's bringing in the bulk of the cash for Yahoo now, while gambling on a reboot of the more product/technical part of the company. No one is quite sure Yahoo even has the talent -- or can buy enough talent -- to pull the latter off.

I don't disagree with those concerns, but then again, I've never been a bull on the idea that Mayer will turn Yahoo around.

But to characterize this as Yahoo "destroying [its] functioning content business" is a stretch. First off, if the business were so functioning Yahoo wouldn't have gone through this many CEOs in a matter of years. Second, the bulk of the inventory on Yahoo is already aggregated and long has been.

To those upset, I say: You're only now outraged? Where have you been for the last decade-plus as Yahoo has ignored its latent potential to become a media force while it's lamely chased Google around, insisted it's a tech company and brought in CEO after CEO who knew nothing about content?

What exactly did you think was going to happen when Yahoo's board ditched one of the best media executives in the business in Ross Levinsohn to bring in a noted product expert from Google? Didn't we all assume something like this was the playbook? Did anyone expect Mayer to usher in a new era of original journalism here?

We can debate whether Mayer is playing to Yahoo's strengths here, but Mayer is definitely playing to her strengths. And if she's the one leading the company, that makes more sense than fellow Google alum Tim Armstrong continuing to bungle his way through the world of content over at AOL.

It's not that I can't understand why people are concerned. As one of the largest destinations on the Web with dominant franchises in finance, entertainment, and sports, Yahoo's natural strength is as a media company.

But here's the thing: That's been Yahoo's unrealized strength for much of its life, and no one has ever done a great job unlocking it. Mayer isn't dismantling some gem of original content. She's turning her back on Yahoo's long-unrealized potential. As a creator of content, I know this sounds strange coming from me, but I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. Yahoo can't afford to keep clinging to what it could have been.

The board got this media potential back when it hired Terry Semel to be the CEO. It simply hired the wrong kind of media mogul -- a Hollywood one -- to tap that strength. Semel's tenure was marred by the rise of Google. The years where Yahoo stopped calling itself a media company and tried to compete with Google on technology was a lot of what mired the company in No. 2 status and created the infighting and silos the company still grapples with today.

Granted, the idea of relying on user generated content is genuinely awful. Have you read some of the comments on Yahoo Finance? Purchasing a YouTube also-ran isn't the best answer for making Yahoo's content more relevant for a mobile audience.

But smart aggregation and partnerships are another thing altogether. Yahoo has always relied heavily on aggregation and monetized well against it. In many ways its strategy predated blogs like The Huffington Post and Business Insider. And because the views were so great, in its own way, Yahoo played as big of a role as Google in making most of the general business world change how they wrote stories and headlines to show up on Yahoo Finance's ticker pages.

Unfortunately, this also made the aggregated news on those ticker pages pretty much unusable because stories were overloaded with only slightly relevant tickers. Mayer will need to do a better job on the product side of surfacing relevant content-- particularly if she expects to make all this content relevant for screen-size limited mobile users.

Still, Yahoo played -- and still plays -- an important role in pulling together external content around major verticals like finance, sports, and entertainment for a lot of the online population.

Yahoo has gone through waves where it's tried to augment that with original content. Unlike homegrown efforts by MSN or AOL, pockets of that original content have been really well done. As many people know, I was the founding co-anchor for Yahoo Finance's TechTicker, and the team recruited to launch it was stellar. Likewise, the Yahoo Sports team and videographers on staff in Sunnyvale are phenomenally talented. There are real journalists and Emmy award-winning video talent still at Yahoo -- not just content farmers.

The problem is these are tiny blips at the huge, bloated company. These efforts haven't been supported as well as they should have been within the huge Yahoo monster of a million warring fiefdoms and verticals. All the architects and advocates of many of these projects have long since left or been re-org'd out of the company.

The good ones are more the skunkworks than shining stars of these verticals. Most people at the company probably don't even know these divisions are there. Despite what BI's source would have you believe, the high-quality original content efforts don't bring in the bulk of the ad revenues -- in part because the ad teams at Yahoo have no idea how to sell that inventory.  And unless they get linked to from the front page, the in-house brands don't have anything close to the level of visibility that they would as independent sites with that level of traffic and talent. At least that was my experience. Maybe it's changed dramatically, but likely not. When was the last time someone shared an amazing piece of Yahoo original content with you?

As for the more commodity "original" content-- who cares if that gets dismantled? I'm sorry for any job losses, but it's not like that's a real asset for the company that advertisers are in love with. It can be aggregated cheaper and easier.

As a journalist, I wouldn't have traded the experience I had at TechTicker -- and that's not something I'd say about my short-lived time at AOL. It was one of the highest-paid jobs I've had as a reporter, and I got to learn hugely valuable skills about being on camera from top notch producers and videographers from the TV world. But few people outside Yahoo Finance's weird, trader-heavy audience ever saw any of the work, and Yahoo has foolishly disabled archives full of interviews with the likes of Richard Branson, a much younger pre-Oprah Mark Zuckerberg, the first time Elon Musk called a New York Times reporter a "douchebag," and Sue Decker's defense just after Yahoo turned down Microsoft's offer. I feel like the work I and my colleagues did was like a drop of sparkling water in an ocean of aggregated content. You had to know how to look for it to find it, and it was easily and quickly diluted.

It pains me to say it, but it's hard to see how killing original content hurts Yahoo that much. Everyone has said Mayer needs to make big changes and kill some of these sacred cows if she's going to make this work. I'm certainly not going to spend a year asking why she hasn't done that yet and then criticize her when she tries.

Like most things about Yahoo, the real damage was done long before Mayer arrived: Yahoo should have invested heavily in this back when it had the eyeballs of the world on it and could have built the first, huge Web content powerhouse. The time for outrage and second guessing at that lost opportunity has long since passed.

[Image courtesy Bill Hails]