Yahoo serves up the same old recipe with Couric pick

November 30, 2013 7:04 PM

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Trying to whet consumers’ appetites with warned-over sameness with a new side dish isn’t fooling anyone. News consumers woke up to Couric every morning for 15 years on the “Today” show, but many of them are choosing not to watch her talk show, “Katie,” on ABC. So what would make them now tune in to see her now that she’s joined an aging Internet company still struggling with its identity?

In announcing the new hire, CEO Marissa Mayer (one of a small, elite group of female Fortune 500 CEOs) said that Couric would become the “face of Yahoo News” as its global correspondent. The move builds on an existing partnership between Yahoo and ABC News. But while having a female face in an industry long dominated by white men may seem like cause to celebrate, it isn’t necessarily a great example of diversity in media because Couric represents the same old, same old.

Media observers are pondering the meaning of the merger of these two struggling brands. NPR’s TV critic, Eric Deggans, calls Couric “a monster brand that’s in search of a purpose,” while Tim Peterson at Ad Age speculates about how much, if at all, she’ll boost Yahoo’s ad rates for its 700 million users. For me, the company’s decision to make Couric its news centerpiece represents yet another missed opportunity to add diversity and breadth of coverage for a changing media marketplace.

Couric is not going to be a huge draw for black, brown and young consumers who overwhelmingly access content on their mobile devices. In fact, she’s more of a throwback to the days when white faces delivered and helmed coverage of the news of the day. Ryan Tate writes about Yahoo’s “retro” move in adding Couric to its roster of star-powered journalists, and though he does not mention diversity, the term “retro” can be applied in this respect as well. White men have been in charge of delivering news since the advent of radio and television. That is, until they began sharing the responsibility with white women in the 1970s, when Barbara Walters was named the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast at ABC. What’s rare is seeing people of color not only delivering the news, but being named the face of a news organization.

In this digital era, it would be more newsworthy if a black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American had gotten the job instead of Couric, especially at a time when non-whites make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population but only 12 percent of U.S. newsrooms, according to a report released this year by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). The organization also found that 90 percent of newsroom supervisors at organizations that participated in the study were white.

The Radio Television Digital News Association found that while the minority population of the United States has risen 10.4 percent, the minority workforce in television news is up only 3.7 percent, and the minority workforce in radio is up 0.9 percent, Reva Gold reported in July for the Atlantic.

RTDNA’s 2012 diversity study also found that 86 percent of television news directors and 91.3 percent of radio news directors are Caucasian.

A more innovative and creative strategy is better illustrated by HuffPost Live and Al Jazeera, both of which regularly feature on-air talent who reflect the changing demographics of the country. The former is introducing a new guard of hosts to helm provocative online conversations about topics that are more likely to engage a younger, tech-savvy, mobile-connected news consumer, while the latter uses legacy television to introduce Americans to non-white faces from around the globe. One co-host for Al Jazeera’s The Stream, Malika Bilal, is an African American Muslim woman who wears a head covering, something that would never happen on network or cable TV news. It is important that increasingly diverse media consumers get to see journalists who look like them — and this is especially true of young people who are accustomed to seeing faces that look like theirs when they access social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram. These types of platforms reflect the country, and that’s why consumers tune in. Yahoo, ehhh, not so much.

Al Jazeera had a robust online presence before it launched its cable news operation (for years that was the only way to watch because U.S. cable companies had kept the network off the air). Last month, the network announced that it plans to launch a new YouTube channel, separate from its cable channel.

The new YouTube channel will target younger viewers, Gigaom reported. This is the right move considering more Americans now get their news online, including 71 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a Pew study released in October.

The Wall Street Journal publishes a special section in which business leaders weigh in on the most pressing topics of the day. In the Nov. 29, 2013, issue the subject focused on how demographic changes will influence business in the coming decade. A recurring theme among the four experts is that businesses ignore demographic changes among millennials, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans at their own peril.

The consensus is perhaps best summed up this way: “In the future, the biggest demographic change in the U.S. is the rise of the majority-minority, an odd concept that shows that we still haven’t gotten over the idea that white males are the norm and everyone else is a stranger,” states Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in strategy, innovation and leadership for change. “To thrive domestically as well as globally, being multicultural is essential.”

In short, smart business leaders are already thinking about, understanding and responding to the shift in demographics; those who are not will fail.

If Yahoo truly wants to prove itself a viable entity, not just a failed search-engine fossil, then the Internet giant should take a page from its tech side by taking more risk, not sticking with the same old, tired recipe. I’m sure they can form a Yahoo group to do just that.

Tracie Powell writes regularly about the media for the Columbia Journalism Review. She’s contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil and also founded, a blog that focuses on the intersection of technology, media and policy.


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