Q&AA: Katie Couric brings talking-head cred to the short-form revolution

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Katie Couric is on her own.

Credit: John Jay Cabuay

Dubbed "America's sweetheart" during her 15-year stint as co-host of NBC's "Today" show, Couric was the epitome of the morning-news-show anchor: unfailingly cheerful, exceptionally informed and quick-witted. By the time she became the first solo woman anchor of the "CBS Evening News" in 2006 (she left in 2011 after middling ratings), Couric was arguably TV news' hottest star.

Now, more than a year after the end of a run as global news anchor at Yahoo, she's betting she can forge a direct relationship with viewers and big brands.

In June, Couric announced a deal with Procter & Gamble to create a short-form video series featuring profiles of accomplished women and distributed by TheSkimm. (Couric says there are more deals in the works.) The series is a product of Katie Couric Media, whose investors include Horizon Media founder and CEO Bill Koenigsberg.

Couric already knows the downside to digital. Her much-hyped deal with Yahoo fizzled out as her interview segments failed to find traction. Ultimately, Couric says, Yahoo didn't know how to market the content. She parted ways with the company when Verizon merged it with AOL to form Oath.

Couric says her new, long-term plan goes beyond creating content for marketers to be distributed through publishers and social media: Instead, she imagines a Couric-branded subscription product that's home to all the content her company produces.

Couric discussed her new venture with Ad Age just days before CBS fired Jeff Fager, the "60 Minutes" executive producer with whom she once worked, over a threatening text he sent a reporter covering sexual harassment allegations against him. A Couric representative later said she declined to comment on his firing.

This interview been edited and condensed.

Why go out on your own?

The media landscape has clearly changed dramatically, and there's been an unprecedented democratization of content. Simultaneously, there's been an unprecedented demand for good content. That dovetailed with my understanding and observation that a lot of brands were looking for substantive, purposeful content.

And I also realize that brands now stand for more than just selling soap or toothpaste or cars or insurance. They actually want to be associated with either causes or important issues. I saw that there was a lot of synergy between the things that I cared about and the things that many of these brands are standing up for.

Can you give us some examples?

I mean, we just saw that Levi Strauss is coming out for stricter gun laws. Nike has taken a position with their support of Colin Kaepernick. I'm not sure everything is going to be that political. But Procter & Gamble cares deeply about gender equality and conversations about race. So for me to be able to extend that kind of messaging and extend that kind of content beyond advertising seemed like a really exciting opportunity.

So, you're making branded content.

I want to be careful about how we characterize it. It's really sponsored by a company, but I am editorially independent. It's basically echoing or reflecting some of the things they care about. I don't really define it as branded content. You know, I think it's clear that it sort of harkens back to the old days where "programing is brought to you by," but it's not really about what they're selling, it's really about what they believe in.

Nike received a lot of backlash for its ad starring Kaepernick. How cautious do brands need to be when aligning themselves with causes?

I'm not a brand adviser, and it's up to every company to figure out if they're going to put themselves out there in that way—if that's good for their brand and what they want to represent. But I think increasingly people are looking to brands for leadership.

What are your goals for the company?

Part of my goal is to spotlight and elevate young female journalists to give them an opportunity to do interesting projects at a time where management of media companies is still very much dominated by men.

And I think that flexibility in formats is really exciting and, at some point, I hope to have some kind of daily offering where I can have the kind of connection with an audience that I have had for so long on a daily basis.

The #MeToo movement has swept up a lot of media executives, most recently Les Moonves, the former CBS chairman and CEO, with whom you worked. What has your experience been like working in network news?

I've had a largely positive experience. I mean, I think clearly we need more women in leadership positions and not just sort of lip-service leadership positions but those that have true authority and decision-making abilities. You have to make a concerted effort to find really talented women, and you have to also be transparent about the cultures that exist. And that's not really done by internal investigations or by law firms that may have a vested interest in things coming out a different way but in being transparent and honest and tough, taking a look at how you shift cultures. And I think it's hard to do that when you maintain the leadership that has been responsible for those cultures for years.

Will your company be tackling this issue head on?

I'd like to do my part to help shape the journalists of the future and get them equipped to lead the way. I think after the activism of #MeToo we need real action in terms of "How do we seriously change the culture?" And I think you do this by disrupting the status quo and putting more women in charge—and women who really have the chops to be in charge, not women who just are convenient and happen to be at a company.

You've seen the challenges of digital media first hand during your time at Yahoo News. What are you taking away from that experience and bringing to this initiative?

Well, with Yahoo, the biggest problem was discoverability. I think that was less about digital media and more about Yahoo's priorities, honestly. I think it's about making content available, discoverable, creating a community around it and giving some kind of cadence to the production schedule. I think also making sure the advertising is not too distracting, and that it's clear.

Would you consider returning in some capacity to traditional media?

I'm really trying to be oriented to mobile and mobile-first strategy. But certainly, as I talk about amplification, TV is still an incredibly valuable audience. If there's an opportunity to partner with some of those traditional media outlets, I would totally be open to it.

Do you have a voice in the political conversation? Or do you feel some relief not having to discuss the state of the Union every night?

I think it's hard to disassociate yourself from everything that's happening. But I want to be thoughtful and careful about that, and I don't mind weighing into it as long as I'm respectful and not hyperpartisan. I obviously have covered politics my entire career, and it's not something that I would necessarily shy away from. But I would try to do it in a way that's not so intensely bifurcated as today's landscape is.

We have plenty of people with plenty of opinions. People don't necessarily have to hear mine in a super in-your-face way. I think that we just need to have content that helps create deeper understanding and connection among people instead of this horrible partisan bickering. And so anything I can do to help people actually have a civil conversation about some of these things, as idealistic as that may sound, is what I really care about.

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