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Summary:

Yahoo has been on a media hiring spree, snapping up journalists from existing traditional and online outlets to ramp up its original content efforts. But that sounds a lot like the strategy Yahoo pursued just a few years ago, and that didn’t turn out so well.

It’s back to the future time at Yahoo, it seems. The Internet portal/media giant has decided to invest in original content again, embarking on a hiring spree that’s so far added almost a dozen journalists from both traditional print media outlets (like Jane Sasseen from BusinessWeek) and online media entities (like Michael Calderone from Politico) and even opening a bureau in Washington, D.C. Yahoo is also hiring TV veterans, including Anna Robertson, a news producer from “Good Morning America.” Does this strategy spell success for the beleaguered web giant? Only if it goes about it in a very different way from the last time it bet the farm on creating original web content.

Rewind the calendar a few years, and this sounds an awful lot like what Yahoo was doing under Lloyd Braun, the media genius that then-CEO Terry Semel hired to turn what was a portal into a multimedia colossus producing TV-style content and journalism. The company hired dozens of writers, editors and producers for its media unit, and launched some ambitious original content ventures, including a web-based breaking news operation called Hot Zone hosted by former CNN war reporter Kevin Sites.

But the original content train derailed fairly early. As a BusinessWeek piece described it:

Yahoo’s original content endeavors, from celebrity blogs to the online reality shows, have fallen flat or been stuck in development. Web-traffic numbers have stalled on a couple of its media sites. And Yahoo’s media group only hit internal financial targets last year after revising them downward, according to two sources familiar with the media group. “Things at Yahoo just get stuck in Never Never Land,” says an executive at one of Yahoo’s content partners.

Eventually, of course, both Semel and Braun left the company and Yahoo started a long slide that included the return of co-founder Jerry Yang as acting CEO, followed by Carol Bartz, and an on-again, off-again romance with Microsoft around the search business. But even before the recent hiring wave of journalists, there have been signs that Yahoo wanted to get back into the content business in a big way, including a deal with WPP Group to produce advertising-branded TV-style webisodes. As Liz reported in January, Bartz has also said that Yahoo sees its main competition as being television.

There’s no question that Yahoo is already a media force, with a news site that gets close to 45 million unique visitors a month (far more than Google News) and several properties such as Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Entertainment that also pull in fairly huge numbers of users. But the majority of that content comes from media partners, not Yahoo itself — and therein lies part of the problem with the company wanting to become an original content creator: How are the big media entities going to take it when Yahoo starts competing with them by generating its own journalism and other content? They didn’t like it much last time, and that was part of what spelled doom for the strategy.

Yahoo isn’t the only company banking on original content, either: AOL has also been spending wads of cash hiring traditional journalists either away from existing media outlets such as the New York Times (including Saul Hansell, who is running the company’s Seed project) or those who have been laid off in the many waves of downsizing. As of last year, AOL had an estimated 1,500 journalists working for its various properties, and has said that it plans to pour $50 million into a hyper-local news venture called Patch. More recently, however, the company’s media plans have been described by some as “a mess,” complicated by what CEO and former Google executive Tim Armstrong has said is a culture of failure..

The bottom line for Yahoo is that CEO Carol Bartz had better have some new tricks up her sleeve, or her original content bet could wind up on the same flaming pyre along with the vision of Braun and Semel.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):Developers, Meet Your Hungry New Market: The News

Post photo courtesy of Flickr user Paulo Brabo

  1. the problem with yahoo’s original content is that yahoo brings nothing to the table other than tech savvy. its previous attempts at news and finance video content didn’t provide anything compelling past the novelty of the web delivery mechanism. in 2002 that was enough – traditional media wasn’t tech savvy enough. that has changed. eighteen months from now we’ll be talking about yahoo winding down this effort. then in 2014 they’ll try making another go at media, and then in 2016 we’ll be talking about winding down that effort. rinse and repeat until yahoo goes away.

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  2. [...] Yahoo Invests in Original Content When Yahoo tried to provide original journalistic content a few years ago, the endeavor failed miserably – now it’s trying again. [...]

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  3. What is Yahoo thinking? Good-bye Terry. Hello Carol.

    What they need is a Mark Hurd, a Steve Jobs, a Lou Gerstner. Instead, they have a Mike Nolan.

    They lost big when they failed to buy Facebook for a piddly $1 billion.

    Next step: Facebook will take over photos and kill flickr. Then email will die a slow death as status messages continue ascending. Finally, Yahoo will become the AOL of the Internet but we will be saying “yada yada” is the Yahoo of the Internet.

    A content company? Was it ever one. It was a technology company. But now it’s a zombie.

    Wake up. Get another board and CEO.

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