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Katie Couric: “I’m In This Giant Petri Dish Where Anything Is Possible”

Katie Couric explains why Yahoo is the perfect place to reinvent journalism—and her career.

Katie Couric: “I’m In This Giant Petri Dish Where Anything Is Possible”
[Photos: ioulex]

Even though she started her new gig as Yahoo’s global news anchor last spring, this is Couric’s first official day in the company’s new Manhattan office, a Midtown building that once housed the New York Times but which is now populated with developers and “Hack Day” posters. It’s a modest set compared to her former spreads at the Today show, the CBS Evening News, and her short-lived ABC talk show, Katie. As global anchor, Couric is the face of Yahoo News. She’s shaping its emerging video-news unit, and is doing feature-length reports focusing on political, health, and social issues; innovators; and cultural figures. Before Couric arrived, Yahoo didn’t exactly have the street cred to lure high-profile interview subjects. Couric does, so people like Leon Panetta, John Kerry, and Jon Stewart are becoming standard for the network. Couric doesn’t report every piece or host every show, but her journalistic ethos guides the operation’s direction.

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Five months into her new job, Couric is in the early days of trying out new, digital-friendly formats, even toying with the idea of offering a daily news show during lunch hour, when office workers tend to fire up their browsers. We talked to Couric, now arguably the most overqualified news anchor on the Internet, about her new boss, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer; the TV industry’s blind spot; and how she’s adjusting to brogrammer lingo.

It’s been almost a decade since Today. Now that you’re at Yahoo, would you consider yourself an early technology adopter?

There’s a very funny clip of Bryant Gumbel and me in 1994 [on Today] discussing the Internet. It’s so mortifying, but hilarious. We were like, “What does that ‘@’ thing mean?” I said it meant “around.” People mock it a lot when they see it online. But I’m like, “Hey, anybody who in 1994 really knew what was happening, I’d like to buy them a drink.” Back then, I had a computer the size of a mini fridge on my desk.

There’s a tech language now that I’m getting more familiar with . . . “We’re whiteboarding it so we can socialize it up the pipeline!” [Laughs] But I don’t think I could be categorized as a ­techie. I am somebody who is aware of trends, was cognizant the landscape was shifting, and felt it under my own two feet. With the [CBS] Evening News, for example, for the most part I was reading lead-ins to other people’s stories. So I did a web show there, because I missed one-on-one interviews.

How did you end up at Yahoo?

I had met Marissa casually a few times, and certainly knew a lot about her because my antenna is always up for women who are breaking barriers. In the spring of 2013, Yahoo had this bonfire event, mostly for CMOs and luminaries, at a fancy resort in Turks and Caicos. They asked me to do a couple of interviews there.

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At this event I said to Marissa, “You have this opportunity. Do you want to be the place where you read about the boy who lived on ramen noodles for 13 years? Or do you want to bring some original reporting and quality content to your site?” She seemed really open and interested. I think she was intrigued by the prospect of making Yahoo into something where you could see some important stories and elevated content. Not just about the Real Housewives.

At the time, what was your analysis of the state of the news business?

When you’re a part of an established entity, there’s so much incentive to maintain the status quo. A lot of times, the people who are leading are at the end of their careers, so they don’t want to throw everything up and see where it lands. They want to make it someone else’s problem. But I have seen the shift happening before my eyes, and have at times been frustrated that people weren’t taking advantage of this new platform in a way that would be effective for the content.

When I was at CBS during the Gulf oil spill, I took Twitter questions during the Evening News. Well, my God, you would have thought I was doing something so outrageous. One of the executives at CBS actually cornered my producer and said, “I just don’t think it is appropriate that the anchor of the CBS Evening News would be on the Twitter.”

Being on television in recent years, you just didn’t feel like you were on the cutting edge of where journalism was going. It seemed almost . . . what is the word where something seems kind of antiquated, or precious? Quaint! Our ideas of television seemed quaint to me, even as I was in it.

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Couric in the Yahoo newsroom, a far cry from the fancy digs of network TV.

Your career has been filled with moments that could be characterized as experiments. You were the first solo female anchor for the Evening News. Then you tried a daytime talk show, with ABC’s Katie, which ended last spring. To what degree is Yahoo another test run?

I wouldn’t characterize those experiences as experiments. I’ve always tried to maintain high standards in whatever I’ve done. So at this point in my career, it’s sort of like, “Where can I do quality work that I truly care about?” So far, Yahoo has been a great place to do that.

The daytime talk show was probably more of an experiment for me. Could you bring substantive content to daytime TV? Could I tackle serious issues like sexual assault on college campuses or in the military? Could I do something on the ­latest technology and science and scientific approaches to cancer? Those are pretty serious topics for daytime television, where mostly people are kind of playing games, and it’s all very celebrity-heavy. So I went into that thinking, This audience may not be receptive to that content, and that’s okay. I’m not going to change my content, I’m just going to change where I’m doing it.

Would you call Katie a success or failure?

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In many ways it did work, but in many ways I could never have interviewed Ruth Bader Ginsburg on my talk show, which I did on Yahoo after the Hobby Lobby decision. That just wouldn’t have attracted a large enough audience.

In your new position as Yahoo global news anchor, are you interested in approaching the format of news differently? Or are you just bringing quality content to digital?

The ultimate irony in the information age is that people feel woefully uneducated about issues and topics. So, how do you make information memorable, so they have basic knowledge when they hear a story or a development? I started doing these three-minute explainers called “Now I Get It.” We’ve done them on things like the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, voting rights, and Scottish independence. We take these topics, deconstruct them, give some history, and make it fun and interesting.

So far, it’s been a lot of experimenting and trying things. For example, when I interviewed Chet [Kanojia] from Aereo we did a GIF that, in a few seconds, explained the whole concept behind Aereo. But then we did a longer interview with Chet, and then we divided it up into little pieces for people to watch on mobile.

That’s playing around with form. When it comes to the actual content, Yahoo isn’t typically the source people think of for high-quality news. Are there things you’ve been able to cover on Yahoo that you never could have on traditional network TV?

Definitely. In mid-June I went to interview John Kerry at a conference on oceans. That weekend, ISIS was suddenly in the headlines. People hadn’t really heard of it, and so for 35 minutes I got to live-stream an interview with Kerry about ISIS and the global threat. Who are these people, where did they come from? How did the war in Iraq contribute to their ascendancy? What role were they playing in Syria? My God, do you think I would ever be able to do that on a network? Never.

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Why not?

Well, if John Kerry had been on the evening news it would have been maybe three minutes. On a morning show, I don’t know if they’d even interview John Kerry at this point.

Do you feel freed of the confines of network television? Want to know one of the most liberating aspects of this job?

When you’re on television every day it’s very hard to be a real reporter. Now, I can see a story in the Guardian and say, “I really want to do this story, I want to learn more about it.”

So after 30 . . . argh . . . years of television, I think it’s wonderful to be in a place where you’re learning something new. I’m in this giant petri dish where anything is possible. A lot of my friends in television say that it must be nice to be in a field that is optimistically expanding, instead of managing decline.

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What is it like going from being a TV personality viewers flocked to at a set time every day to having people stumble across your segments in the vast, fragmented world of the Internet?

I’m sure the viewership numbers are much lower. When people consume information online, it’s often a much less passive and a much more intentional experience. When I did the Today show, who knows what people were doing when I was doing interviews! In some cases I don’t want to know. They were getting dressed or making their kid’s lunch. The show was often background noise. Maybe that’s why morning news segments keep getting shorter and shorter. This is far more gratifying, because someone has chosen to seek us out. They’re interested from the start.

People wonder whether Yahoo wants to be a tech company or a media company. Which is it?

You’d have to talk to Marissa and Kathy [Savitt, Yahoo CMO] about their grand scheme. I think they probably want to be a little of both. We see our mission as doing great stories, talking to interesting people, and providing material that people will find engaging and interesting.

Is Marissa leaving the media vision up to your team to figure out?

We’re playing with a lot of ideas. In some ways, we are like a startup in a big company, trying to carve out our vision of what we want to be.

Usually it’s the other way around. The tech team is usually the startup in a big, established organization.

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We’re definitely the outliers. It took me a while to understand that product for them has a very different meaning than product for us. When I think of a product, I think about my story. But their product is the platform.

How’s your relationship with Marissa?

It’s hard because she’s in Sunnyvale [California] and I’m here, and she’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders, in charge of this behemoth. She doesn’t check in with me daily, or, say, ask my advice about the Alibaba deal. But I see her in Sunnyvale, when I’m out occasionally, and I enjoy catching up.

You are both among the few women who have risen to the top of your respective fields. You’ve dealt with scrutiny your entire career, and she’s dealing with it now. Have you given her any advice?

No, I really haven’t. Marissa has a good head on her shoulders. She does things the way she wants, and she hasn’t sought advice from me—nor have I given unsolicited advice. Both of us know that we might be more fun to gossip about than somebody like Tim Cook.

Do you think you would ever return to television?

I think it’s all about multiple platforms. Working at Yahoo, and doing quality content for Yahoo, doesn’t preclude me from doing stuff on television too.

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The lines are going to be increasingly blurred. It doesn’t matter where content originates because it ultimately gets spread everywhere. And ultimately people aren’t like, “I’m watching Netflix.” No, they’re watching House of Cards. So I don’t think you should be surprised if I do more TV work, but hopefully it will complement and reinforce what I’m doing at Yahoo.

So your intention is to stay here for a while?

Yeah. I don’t think Jon Stewart’s calling me to take over The Daily Show.

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton.

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