After months of rumors, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer confirmed Monday that she has signed up TV icon Katie Couric to play the role of "global" anchor for the Internet giant. In her blog post, Mayer said that Couric, along with other recent media hires including David Pogue, Matt Bai, and Megan Liberman, will pioneer a "new chapter of digital journalism."
That's an ambitious undertaking. But for Yahoo and Couric, pioneering a new chapter of digital journalism won't be about embracing new forms of interactive storytelling and funding news bureaus around the globe. It's about competing with traditional television and for advertising dollars. You can understand the personnel decision as part of a bigger ambition to transform Yahoo -- if not the Internet -- from being a second screen into the main screen even though it would offer much the same news and entertainment content as before.
Couric is expected to anchor a news program on Yahoo with interviews of major players and coverage of breaking news events. That's the exact same role she filled in most of her previous broadcast network jobs. And this TV icon has experience dipping her toes into the newer media. During her time as anchor of the CBS Evening News, Couric conducted online-only interviews of former Vice President Al Gore, Drake, and Diane Keaton, for example, and she could school others in the use of social media.
Adding Couric to the lineup is part of Yahoo's push to make the nearly 20-year-old Internet portal more attractive to advertisers. Although Yahoo appeals more to older users -- what the advertisers classify as an "aging demographic" -- don't dismiss the potential here, as there are more than 700 million of them around the world. In a statement, Couric nodded to that potential, talking about the "tremendous opportunity to reach people all around the world in the way that they're using and consuming media today."
We'll see what Yahoo intends, but it's clear that the company's strategists are trying to exploit recent technology changes. Mobile devices, especially tablets, are creating new opportunities for content creators to reach audiences. Decoupled from the TV screen, people can easily find, recommend, and consume content on tablets and phones, anytime and anywhere. Yahoo is relying on its increasing number of mobile users -- in excess of 300 million -- as well as a growing stable of high-profile journalists and the power of its high-traffic pages to deliver large, targeted audiences to advertisers.
However, the Yahoo-Couric marriage won't take much revenue away from her former employers, which have made significant investments in digital distribution. While the TV screen is on a slow decline as more people consume news and other information on digital devices, the vast majority of $70 billion in annual TV ad dollars is still going to the broadcast and cable networks. Nor will Couric's addition to the Yahoo news stable impress the company's Tumblr users, most of whom are under the age of 35.
It's unlikely that the investment in Couric and other talent will lift Yahoo far beyond its news aggregation roots, unless the company wants to go the route of AOL and purchase a large entity like the Huffington Post. Yahoo isn't attempting to replace the traditional news networks. The company is still in bed with ABC News, showcasing the network's news content on Yahoo News and the Yahoo front door. As Couric ends her current contract with ABC, her Yahoo programming could end up being used by the network.
Mayer's investment in Couric and other journalistic talent puts some frosting on the aggregation cake. It can burnish the Yahoo News brand and get some advertisers to pay attention. Sarah Palin interviews don't come along that often, but it's a reason to pursue high-quality journalism. But does the universe really need another talk show or celebrity interview? It could be that Couric's most important contribution to Yahoo will be drawing in more people to give the company's multitude of sites a try rather than anchoring a hit show.
Disclosure: I worked with Katie Couric at CBS News when she was the anchor of the CBS Evening News. CBS is the publisher of CNET News.