Q&A: Yahoo's Katie Couric on Election 2016, Live News and Snapchat
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer put a spotlight on her premium programming ambitions when the portal announced the hiring of Katie Couric to be its global news anchor in November 2013.
Since joining Yahoo in January 2014 -- and becoming a full-time employee in June 2014 -- the former "Today" host and "CBS Evening News" anchor has sat down with politicians including Secretary of State John Kerry and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and interviewed celebrities like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and deejay Steve Aoki. She has also helmed Yahoo's election-night coverage and produced shorter segments for its Snapchat audience.
Ms. Couric's interviews have combined to nab roughly 100 million views since June, and have increased in popularity with each passing quarter. For the second quarter of 2014, her content fetched 4 million views. That number hit 32 million views in the fourth quarter of 2014 and then 36 million views in the first quarter of 2015, according to a Yahoo spokeswoman.
Ms. Couric spoke with Ad Age recently about what she's been up to at Yahoo, how she's planning to cover the 2016 presidential election and how she programs for Yahoo's Snapchat channel. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What all does your job entail as Yahoo's global news anchor?
A lot of things, which is one of the reasons I'm enjoying myself so much. I'm doing everything from live broadcasts about Ferguson or Charlie Hebdo to political announcements like Rand Paul's and Marco Rubio's on Monday to doing big political interviews with Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mitt Romney so far and obviously planning to do more in the future as more people throw their hats in the ring. I'm working on trying to get a sit-down with all of them at some point.
So I'm doing news-making interviews.
I did [Reddit CEO] Ellen Pao about her lawsuit with Kleiner Perkins but mostly really about diversity in the workplace because she's still deciding on whether she'll appeal, so she wasn't free to talk about the particulars. But we had a really interesting conversation about tech in the workplace and diversity.
So I'm doing interviews and stories like that. And then I'm doing a series of reports called "World 3.0" where I get to talk to people who are innovators and disruptors in all kinds of different areas. I did one with a robotics engineer at MIT who's creating social robots. I do explainer videos called "Now I Get It" once a week where we take issues like the California drought or the differences between Sunnis and Shias or 4-K TV or the Iran nuclear situation. So we do two- to three-minute explainers on those and then push those out once a week. It's sort of developing.
Every day I'm doing new and different things, but we wanted to have some signature franchises that we could build on. I've got incredible freedom to pursue the kinds of stories I want and also to go for some big interviews that can be used not only on Yahoo but ABC News -- like my Stephen Collins interview appeared in both places. I did an interview with [electronic dance music DJ] Steve Aoki. And I interviewed [boxers] Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to do profiles of them before the big fight on May 2.
Last time we spoke was the day Yahoo announced your hire, and you had said you were about to go into the development phase of figuring out what your priorities would be at Yahoo. What have you figured out so far?
One of the really gratifying aspects of this job is I'm able to deliver some nice, big interviews like with John Kerry or with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So I still like to do news-making interviews. I see those as a great way to reinforce the fact at we're doing this kind of work on Yahoo. So that's a big priority for me. And obviously we had to build a staff from scratch and get ramped up to do things, so I really could go full-throttle starting really in June when my talk show ended. Then we had enough producers and bookers and staff in place to start delivering some significant content.
What do you see as the biggest difference between the work you were able to do from January to June of last year while the talk show was still going on versus the work you were able to do after the talk show ended and you came on full-time?
I think we did 296 shows for the second season of my talk show. So I just couldn't focus on doing things only for Yahoo. I still do some other things, like my documentary, and I'm doing a few other things. But I'm really full-time and focused on Yahoo now. I think to establish ourselves in the space requires a lot of trying to explain to people what we're doing and to create a body of work so people can understand the kinds of things I'm interested in doing and the opportunities this platform provides. ... We always knew that it was going to take several months to staff up and to get the resources in place. It takes a village to produce work like this. I was really excited to jump in in June. ... Now I think we're operating on all four cylinders and really putting a really terrific amount of content on a regular basis.
There are so many different measures for digital content like view counts and comments. How closely do you look at the numbers or even what people are saying about the interviews?
As we're trying to establish ourselves as a place you can go for quality news content, a lot of it is impressions. I interviewed John Kerry about ISIS in June. On a personal level it's satisfying to be able to talk with him for half an hour, and then to see the interview quoted above the fold in The New York Times or used in a whole host of publications. Clearly those kinds of interviews are resonating across not just Yahoo's platforms but across a number of media outlets. Everyone has been incredibly supportive of this whole cross-section of stories I'm doing because I don't think we looked at ratings -- sometimes we say, "Wow, this really seemed to resonate." But if I do a piece on a transgender teenager that gets three to four million views, I think that's interesting, there's an appetite for that. But that doesn't mean I'm going to do all stories about transgender people. I think we look at it and say that's interesting. But I think the formats are still evolving. The story selection is still evolving. And I don't think that's our only goal. Our goal is to establish a presence and to cover issues that we as a team feel are really important and valuable.
For example, I profiled the first gay police chief in Richmond, California, to talk about community policing and how violent crime has decreased a lot in Richmond, California. Now I don't even know how many views that got. I'm so busy focusing on the content itself. But to me that was a really important story that tackled an issue from a different perspective, from a place where community policing is really working and what does that mean. I did something with the secretary of commerce about the skills gap in this country. I did something with Frank Bruni about his book on college admissions. One great aspect of working here and doing this kind of content is it has a long tail, and people can find it, and we can repost things. I do a "Now I Get It" about the Pope and his position on a number of issues, and if I put it in one piece, when there's news about the Pope we can repost that. I feel like they have a very long life span. That's something that is really exciting and something that I didn't experience in television really.
Are you seeing that audiences are willing to watch long interviews or that you need to account for shorter attention spans by cutting shorter clips?
I think everybody's trying to figure this out. Generally what we do is -- for example, with Larry David, I might make a half-hour interview available with Larry David. And then sub-clip it into Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Larry David on coming to broadway for the first time, Katie goofing on Larry David, Larry David on his love life. We'll do that, and then somebody who really loves Larry David and wants to sit down and watch the whole thing, they can do that. ... But we also want to give those who may not want to sit down for the whole 20- or 30-minute interview an opportunity to get a taste of it or explore what area of interest they have.
I spoke with Yahoo CMO Kathy Savitt earlier in the week, and she said live news programming is a priority for this year. You've done some live news programming like last year's election night coverage. But what's the plan moving forward on the live programming front?
[Ms. Couric explained that the Yahoo News team has covered stories as they break by conducting interviews with experts.]
I think what we're going to try to do is do those more regularly. And then we find that if it's [available on-demand, or VOD], a lot of people go back and look at it on VOD on our website. I think that's something we're going to continue to do. I still obviously like to go out and shoot taped pieces and do profiles on people outside the studio. I think [Yahoo News colleague] Bianna [Golodryga] will do some of them. I'll do some of them. And we'll be able to have something and put our imprint on whatever the big story of the day is.
The big story of many days to come is the 2016 presidential election. What's the strategy for how you want to cover it?
We're honestly still in the planning stages with that. But clearly I have a lot of experience covering conventions, election night, campaigns just from having been in the business as long as I have. So I think we want to do it with great political minds like Olivier Knox and Matt Bai and Jon Ward. And I think we're going to be beefing up our political team. I think we'll want to do something interesting and exciting. We've got our politics [digital] magazine. But exactly what that looks like right now with however many days there are to go before the election day, I'm just not sure. ... Hopefully we can do something really fun and a little less predictable than what the networks do every election night.
You've done a lot of different types of interviews, serious ones as you've mentioned but also lighter ones like one with "The King of Instagram." Are you thinking of programming for different audiences with these different interviews, and do you find that different audiences are watching different types of interviews?
I think audiences have gotten so niche, as you know. Hopefully people have an appetite and a natural curiosity to learn about a whole range of topics and hear from a whole range of people. My husband turned me on to The Fat Jewish, and we noticed that he was hugely popular on Instagram, and we thought he would just be an interesting person to talk to. But I think that did resonate. ... I know this will come as a shock to you, Tim, but I didn't know that much about Steve Aoki and EDM or electro-house, which he thought was so funny -- but he was an interesting person. And I have this natural, insatiable curiosity that I found him fascinating and I found the genre interesting. He's extremely interested in technology and considers himself a futurist. I thought wow, this guy is really interesting. And here I am, somebody who doesn't go to EDM concerts; I've never been to Coachella. And yet I found him really fascinating. So I hope I can be a bridge between people and help them get out of their comfort zone.
When we talked before your officially started at Yahoo, you identified mobile as a priority. You've been hosting Yahoo's Snapchat Discover channel. How do you think about programming for that in particular, but also for mobile in general?
I'm hoping that a lot of the stuff we're doing will translate easily to mobile. I was approached by Evan Spiegel to be part of this whole Discover effort that they've done, and I thought why wouldn't I want to reach an audience of teenagers and early Millennials and help expose them to some of the news we're doing and help them stay informed in the way they are consuming information. That's been a really fun project. We're going to do things that are similar to that at Yahoo, so people can get a quick-fix, if you will, on their phones.
Anything you can tease on that front?
Not really. No big announcements or anything. I'm just trying to think about that. And I think you'll see us do some more mobile-friendly content. But I don't necessarily think of the two as: this is for your desktop, this is for mobile. I hope everything translates to every platform. And we're really using social media aggressively. It's all about social, getting video through Twitter or through Facebook, in some cases through Instagram. How can we use Snapchat more effectively as an app. How can we start using Periscope effectively. The technology is changing and developing so quickly that we're just trying to figure out how can we do a composite of platforms to maximize the exposure for our content. That's something I think about every day. I have a daily newsletter and a weekly newsletter, and to the people who I send my newsletter to every day, I'm able to put, "Hey, I just interviewed Ellen Pao. This is a link to that interview." My weekly newsletter features all kinds of Yahoo content, from David Pogue, from Bianna, from Matt Bai. So I'm able to reach even more people in that way. Because it's not about people coming to the content, it's about you getting your content to them.