With Zuckerberg on the ropes, Yahoo aims to displace social media as a home for news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

With a rankled Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress this week, Yahoo sees an opportunity to exploit the weakness of social media and expand its position as a global platform for news.

Now owned by Verizon, Yahoo is part of the telecoms giant’s digital subdivision Oath, which also includes AOL, HuffPost, Tumblr and Flickr in a portfolio which collectively registered 217 million monthly users in the US in February, slightly more than Facebook.

The Yahoo News aggregation service – offering content from a range of sources including NBC, USA Today and HuffPost – has for 21 years been a major source of information for Americans, many of whom consume its content as they access their email. The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report for 2017 identified Yahoo News as the number one source of online news in the US, and occupying the same political centre ground in US media as the BBC occupies in the UK.

It has considerable reach in countries including France, Italy, Spain, Australia and Japan, while in the UK it reached 32 million users (or 68% of the online population) in January, according to its ComScore data, by offering content from a range of publisher partners that includes The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Sky News, Reuters and the Press Association, alongside some original content.

With social media platforms suffering a new crisis in trust, and accusations that their algorithms create an echo chamber of similar political views, Yahoo is looking to grow its reach by appealing to users who seek a diversity of news sources in one place. It plans to expand its news gathering operation and extend its network of publishing partners.

Having so far had a heavy reliance on desktop traffic, Yahoo News hopes that under the ownership of Verizon it can increase its presence on mobile, with its strategy based on apps specialising in news, finance and sports.

Social struggles present opportunity

This can be achieved at the expense of Facebook, believes Nick Petche, editor-in-chief of Yahoo UK. “What we want to do with our apps is to reclaim the mobile moment from social media,” he says. “There are social media outlets going before Congress who are having a hard time of it and they seem to be stepping away from the world of content so there is an opportunity there for us.”

In contrast to the bubble of many social media feeds, the aggregator offers a more 360-degree view in its module of six stories from various sources, frequently updated. “Yahoo News offers a plurality of voice that is really, really important in a very fragmented media world right now; you can come to our site and you can see varying opinions and different voices there,” says Petche.

Yahoo is trying to provide an attractive environment for serious news publishers looking for alternatives that make them less dependent on the duopoly of Facebook and Google, which have been accused of failing to fairly reward news companies for content.

“For all the publishers on our site there’s a commercial agreement with them. And brand safety is of paramount concern to make sure that is really well taken care of,” he says. “If we can offer a place for these brands to get in front of new users, I think that would be a very exciting opportunity for them and similarly it’s a very exciting opportunity for us to house prestigious brands under our roof.”

Asked if Yahoo is planning to grow its partner portfolio, Petche says it is. “I can see that that will happen later in the year, yes.”

Being bought by a company worth $200bn has given Yahoo new confidence, he says (although when Oath was established a year ago it was quickly the subject of substantial job losses). “I’m really pleased that Verizon bought Yahoo. We are very fortunate to have someone like Verizon standing behind us. Rather than thinking quarter to quarter it’s really refreshing to start having conversations about what are we going to do in a year, three years, even five years... they are here for the long game.”

Asked whether the public would trust Verizon more than Facebook, given that the NSA’s collection of the phone records of millions of customers of the telecoms company were at the centre of Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations in 2013, he says he is “not really in a position to talk about that”. He then adds: “I think people are more aware of their data than they ever have been before and they value it. There are healthy discussions and we will see where that ends up and I’m sure Verizon will be part of those conversations.”

Yahoo's UK expansion plans

What is clear is that the UK arm of Yahoo is set to expand. A UK version of the Yahoo Newsroom app (which debuted 18 months ago in the US) will launch later this year, and will be hiring new staff to produce it. It will offer users opportunities to interact with stories and to follow particular themes, from politics to popular culture. “You could be interested in Brexit so you follow that, and we can send you an alert (on a breaking story), or you could be following Coronation Street.”

For the Yahoo UK Finance app and coverage, Petche has brought in a new digital production editor from The Guardian, Sajid Shaikh, and a Brussels reporter, with plans to bring in more senior writers specialising in economics and the City of London. The output, including coverage of Brexit, will give a more global dimension to Yahoo’s major business output in the US, where it produces three daily shows. Petche says it his ambition to produce a business show from London.

Video is a big part of the Yahoo UK strategy and next month’s royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will provide it with an opportunity to showcase original work to a global audience. From its ground floor studio it will produce a five-hour live stream of the wedding, hosted by a “well-known presenter”, says Petche. “It will be a very conversational tone with experts talking about etiquette, fashion, procedure. Sometimes in the UK we underestimate the value of the royals, and from an outside perspective there is a fairytale element.”

After the live stream, a video series will be produced on the royal couple. This video output is being made with the support of the team behind Oath’s Build series of online celebrity interviews.

Yahoo’s World Cup coverage will be coordinated from London, where the cosmopolitan local population allows the recruitment of an audience of fans from around the world. “We should be able to find a Panamanian and from all the 32 countries, London is a wonderful place for that and that’s a strength we can play to.” A Russia-based reporter will be “doing colour pieces” from the host country.

Broad audiences but limited resources

Despite an obvious appetite for doing original journalism, Yahoo UK’s resources are limited (its 20-strong team shares a floor with the much larger HuffPost UK newsroom). Petche acknowledges that if a major news incident was to break out in the English Midlands that day he would be covering the story remotely, through partner publishers, news agencies and social media, rather than by sending a reporter on the train. “The thing with breaking news is it’s very resource heavy and that can be a challenge.”

He’s a veteran newsman himself, who previously worked for the Daily Mail and Mail Online, and before that as a trainee on the Maidenhead Advertiser and as a young freelancer in Mexico and Guatemala. Even earlier in his history he was a paper delivery boy and remembers assessing the front pages of the various papers spread out on the newsagent floor.

His job today, picking out the best pictures and headlines, is not dissimilar. “It’s not click baiting, it’s simply going to where the most interesting story is. A story, is a story, is a story.” If he chooses a strong Telegraph piece he is not looking to balance it with one from The Guardian. “It doesn’t mean that just because you have got the Ying you’ve got to put in the Yang.”

It’s the overall feeling of neutrality that matters. When the audience is as broad as Yahoo UK’s – its long history means it reaches “internet early adopters” while also serving users in the Brexit heartlands beyond the big cities – the lack of a political agenda “plays to the strength of the model”, says Petche.

By stepping back from the “fragmented views” found elsewhere in the news media and offering an expansive outlook it is meeting a need in 2018, he claims. “It’s a very helpful and clear proposition to customers and users.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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