Is Katie Couric Secretly the Biggest Brand Journalist Since Kurt Vonnegut?

The big news out of Yahoo! the past few months is that, like seemingly every other brand on earth, they’re planning a major investment in original storytelling.

Yes, Yahoo hiring the New York Times’ Megan Liberman to lead a major expansion of Yahoo News is, well, old news. So are the star-studded signings of Katie Couric as global anchor, the Times’ David Pogue as chief gadget correspondent, and NYT Magazine’s Matt Bai as national political columnist. But here’s a fresh angle: Could the Yahoo News revamp be seen as the biggest brand publishing move of 2013?

Marissa Meyer didn’t just bring on Liberman and Couric because she wanted to increase the traffic and profile of Yahoo News; she made that investment because the benefits extend far beyond Yahoo News. In a statement released in November, Meyer praised Couric as the perfect choice to anchor “the whole Yahoo Network.” If Liberman can turn Yahoo News into a prominent, cool and highly-shareable media destination, the brand-lift benefits will ripple through all of the company’s ventures, from Mail, to Search, through their advertising offerings, and beyond. Most of the financial benefits of an evolved Yahoo News will likely manifest in other parts of the company.

The identity piece of Yahoo News has sort of been absent.”

“By a very large margin we are the biggest news site in the world—almost twice what its next closest competitor is,” Rob Barrett, VP of News and Finance at Yahoo, told The Daily Beast. “But it has struggled to have an identity beyond being a supplier of news.”

The identity issues that plague Yahoo News are the same identity issues that plague Yahoo as a whole — issues Meyer has been trying to solve since becoming CEO last year. In this way, Yahoo is investing in high-quality original content for the same reason as every other brand: the brand-lift benefits.

In fact, when you hear Liberman talk about the reasons for the revamp, she provides the reasons that nearly every brand gives for investing in original storytelling:

“The identity piece of Yahoo News has sort of been absent,” Liberman told The Daily Beast. “We are trying to build it. Which means bring in great writers and names people recognize and people who add something to the conversation, both in breaking news and original enterprise work and recognizable voices.”

Of course, labeling Yahoo News as brand publishing is a stretch; at 18-years-old, it’s a card-carrying member of the digital-media old guard. It was launched as one aspect of the original Yahoo! web portal, a vestige of web 1.0, when sites like Yahoo, AOL and MSN served as users’ gateway and guide to the Internet. Originally, Yahoo News was a merely news-aggregator and didn’t publish any original content, but partnerships with wires like Reuters and the AP gave it some news credentials. Though Yahoo News soon started publishing original stories, they’ve still largely relied on syndication, aggregation, and user-generated content over the past two decades; as of late November, the Yahoo News staff was a mere two dozen.

We’re focused on making the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.”

But with a legacy as a content service that supports the rest of Yahoo’s business, Yahoo News is undoubtedly a unique media hybrid. It’s a news site, but it also serves as content marketing for Yahoo as a whole. If Yahoo News’ daily storytelling is rich, inspiring and entertaining, it’ll support the mission statement put forth by Meyer during Yahoo’s 2013 shareholder meeting: “We’re focused on making the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.”

Meyers big hires, then, can be seen as a possible blueprint for other brands looking to make groundbreaking investments in original content. Namely, she hired people who bring a distinct brand with them. Liberman represented the young/innovative side of the Times; Pogue brings a rabid, gadget-obsessed following; Bai is a national political voice. And Couric’s global brand needs no introduction.

Liberman told The Daily Beast that Yahoo News will follow the “Grantland model,” referencing the site launched by ESPN star-columnist Bill Simmons. The big names give Yahoo News its identity and “serve as tentpoles, while younger writers fill the air underneath.”

Though other brands will have a much harder time than Yahoo attracting top media talent, it’s a strategy they’d be smart to emulate. The right talent can infuse a publication with a strong identity and following, and as the stigma around creating content on behalf of brands decreases, brands will have the ability to attract that talent.

Who knows: If the revamped Yahoo News reinvigorates the rest of the tech giant, we may end up calling Katie Couric the biggest brand journalist since Kurt Vonnegut.

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