(Larry Kramer is the author of C-Scape, a book on the changing landscape for media and related industries for Harper Collins (published Nov., 2010). He also founded MarketWatch, which was sold to Dow Jones in 2005.)
You have to give fired Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz credit for understanding fairly quickly that the business had to become a media business to succeed. For a tech CEO to come to that conclusion had to be difficult, especially at Yahoo, where engineers have dominated the company from the beginning, leading to much of its early success and many of its later problems.
Unfortunately for Bartz, that conclusion meant either she had to move quickly to get the kind of media executives needed to create a great content company, and give them the rope to succeed OR have the company replace her with a content-related CEO.
But neither happened, and once again like so many times before, Yahoo flailed about and failed to match performance with expectations. In the area of journalism, they talked the talk about bringing in strong content creators and they have hired some truly talented journalists, particularly in sports, but others as well. And they have brought in some talented and experienced execs, like Ross Levinsohn.
They have not, however built any kind of media infrastructure to nurture the creation of leading brands of major news, sports, arts and business categories. All of those have huge advertising markets but has done little to break new ground for advertisers on their digital platforms.
Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Arts, Yahoo Finance could claim the high ground with the right leadership teams. They have to learn to extend their brands into more traditional media through partnerships and creative thinking (perhaps like Yahoo itself has done in partnering with newspapers on classified advertising).
Having some of Yahoo’s first rate journalists in all categories- appearing on television and print regularly is a start, but real programming is even better. There is plenty of bandwidth and there are plenty of networks looking for programming. Even though they will be digital players at heart, making waves on all media platforms will accelerate their ability to build their content brands.
Yahoo’s massive audience gives it the ability to play with the traditional media big boys, who have huge audiences on their platforms but struggle to transition their content to the new platforms. Yahoo could take a page out of the Politico Playbook, and build old and new media publishing at the same time, and manage the transition of their readers from one medium to many others.
It’s not just in news or journalism where Yahoo can play. It started down the path of creating entertainment content, but cut the cord on that experiment much too quickly, and watching the execs who they hired go off and do exactly that outside the company.
It’s always hard to tell from the outside why a CEO fails. There could be blame to be shared with some of the board members, or entrenched staffers or even the founders, but we can’t be sure. Besides, the buck stops at the CEO’s desk and managing the expectations of her constituencies, including the board, the founders, the staff, partners, the financial world and customers is her job, and it’s why she gets the big bucks, coming and going.