Even by non-showbiz standards, 111 W. 40th St. was drab.
Home to Yahoo’s ambitious media operation in 2013, the address was nine blocks, 20 years and an internet revolution away from the Rockefeller Center studio where Katie Couric had become an American institution as the co-host of NBC’s “Today” show.
But Couric now found herself in the makeshift work space, which seemed to be constantly changing around and moving between floors. Yahoo staffers told The Post that they sometimes saw Couric appear lost, searching for her producers, as she and her new team prepared to try something that had never been attempted: transplant a television news giant to online and compete with TV news.
What the former TV titan and her team didn’t know was that they would be doing it while Yahoo collapsed around them — and with the system rigged against them by the company’s CEO — all while Couric battled an ugly internal turf war with other journalists.
Recently — nearly a year after resigning from the company — Couric summed up her four years at Yahoo on a Recode Decode podcast.
“I wouldn’t say it was an unhappy marriage, but it certainly was not fulfilling for me,’’ she acknowledged. “I had all this great content, I was getting big interviews — and it was sort of like a tree falling in the forest.”
Based on more than a dozen interviews with current and former Couric associates, The Post has uncovered the real story behind Couric’s occasionally triumphant, mostly infuriating time at the company.
Insiders say the decision to woo Couric wasn’t a hard one for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. It all came down to a simple question: Why not?
First, Couric’s talent wasn’t quite the luxury purchase that it might have seemed.
News reports say Couric signed with Yahoo for a $5 million salary, but sources familiar with the deal explained to The Post that much of her compensation was in Yahoo stock, so Mayer certainly didn’t have to write the TV star a check from the company’s coffers for anything like that amount.
The cost of hiring Couric also was just a tiny fraction of what Mayer was spending elsewhere. The CEO was spending much more to make Yahoo the default search engine for the Mozilla browser — around $375 million a year — and buy social-network site Tumblr for another $1.1 billion.
Even Yahoo’s investors — who at the time wanted the firm to focus on its stake in Chinese online retailer Alibaba, rather than splash cash at a flashy media experiment — didn’t much care about Couric’s much-discussed paycheck.
They didn’t “have a problem with Katie per se, although reports of her [compensation seemed] high, given the traffic associated with her clips’’ online, a Yahoo shareholder said.
Still, some criticized Mayer’s decision as yet another example of the CEO’s “all gloss, no substance and no direct connection to profits” strategy, the shareholder said.
But for Couric, the opportunity was a gift.
“She’d left NBC. She’d left CBS. She’d left ABC,” a senior network executive told The Post. “There certainly weren’t obvious broadcast options for her at that point.”
In fact, when Couric signed with Yahoo, she was on her way out of her gig at ABC in spectacular fashion, with her phenomenally expensive daytime talk show, “Katie,” being canceled after two seasons because of disappointing ratings and her Q score — the industry measure of a star’s popularity, where Couric dominated in her “Today” period — was languishing at around 8 percent, or half the average.
Those two facts alone would have been enough to turn off most TV executives to Couric. But she found one honcho who didn’t care about ratings or Q scores: Mayer.
In a typically brilliant Couric maneuver, the star had anticipated her own TV demise, sources said. So, by the time it was announced in December 2013 that she had been axed by ABC, Mayer — Yahoo’s then-new boss crowned as “the CEO of the moment” by Vogue — had already announced that Couric would be the “dynamic and savvy’’ new “face of Yahoo News.”
Suddenly, the story being written in the press was not about Couric’s failure to dominate daytime TV. It was that “America’s Sweetheart” and Silicon Valley’s golden girl were to lead news into a bold new world.
But privately, Yahoo executives were worried, sources said. Unlike their boss, they were concerned about the numbers — and whether Couric could recover.
It didn’t help that she was dismally promoted by Yahoo.
When CBS chief Les Moonves had hired Couric away from NBC’s “The Today Show” in 2006, he “launched a $13 million publicity blitz that promoted her as though she was the star of a forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster,’’ according to Edward Klein’s biography of Couric, “Katie: The Real Story.”
By comparison, a source said, while Yahoo spent “some marketing dollars’’ on Couric, there were no glitzy promo spots or ads on the sides of buses.
A former staffer estimates that for Couric to live up to her potential, Yahoo would have had to spend at least as much money promoting her new role as “Global Anchor” as it supposedly spent on the star herself — somewhere between $5 million to $10 million per year.
But the promos didn’t come, and it was infuriating to Couric that people often complained to her that they couldn’t find her work on Yahoo, sources close to her said.
Even worse, after having spent several years at Yahoo, people still occasionally asked her, “Where are you working now?”
In the spring of 2014, Yahoo moved into the old New York Times building in Times Square. Couric’s crew sat in a cluster on one side of the newsroom, and on the other side, separated by a bank of elevators, was the team belonging to Megan Liberman, the editor in chief of Yahoo News.
Liberman had built a stellar team of journalistic talent. Couric’s posse — headed by producer Tony Maciulis, a close friend — included highly respected colleagues from various parts of her previous career at the networks.
Some of the “serious journalists” on Liberman’s team regarded Couric as a “TV person” who did cooking segments and “got colonoscopies on TV,’’ referring to Couric’s groundbreaking 2000 “Today” show segment.
(A source close to Couric laughed off that criticism and listed a number of Couric’s journalistic awards.)
So when Mayer gleefully announced in the press that Couric would “lead” the “growing team of correspondents at Yahoo News,” it did not sit comfortably with the Liberman crowd, sources said.
Still, Mayer’s infatuation with her new star didn’t grate on some of Couric’s new colleagues as much as what was to come, according to the sources.
Couric and her producers — seasoned in the world of TV, where big interviews are naturally done by the largest on-air talent — often expected that when the star journalists on Liberman’s team landed big “gets,” such as a sit-down with then-President Barack Obama, Couric would be the one to do the interview.
Liberman’s team had other ideas.
The chorus from execs was, “Why wouldn’t Katie do it?” said a former staffer.
“I don’t think anyone meant any harm. It was a culture clash.”
Couric, by any measure, had some smash hits at Yahoo.
One was her interview with Stephen Collins, the “7th Heaven” actor who in December 2014 admitted to sexually abusing underage girls. As The Wall Street Journal noted at the time, Couric’s exclusive confessional racked up 5 million views — more than “half of a typical evening news audience, bigger than the average cable news audience, and about twice the views of the best-performing video on CNN.com, the No. 2 player in online news after Yahoo.”
ABC even ran the interview as a “20/20” segment, crediting “Katie Couric for Yahoo.”
Those kinds of numbers proved that — when things went well — Couric’s team could give the networks a run for their money.
But for every Stephen Collins-type piece, there were others that got such little traffic that Yahoo worried the low numbers — in the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or millions — would embarrass its global anchor and spook its advertisers.
Multiple sources said Yahoo eventually removed the publicly visible view-counters from its now-shuttered video platform, Yahoo Screen, just to save face.
The fact was, Couric had a massive problem: In a bizarre “only-at-Yahoo” move, Mayer had hired Couric with great fanfare, and then — it seemed to Couric’s Yahoo team — rigged the system against her.
Mayer had set up Yahoo News to be a slave to an algorithm: If you read Kardashian stories, you’d be fed more pop culture; if you read Tom Brady stories, you’d get more NFL news.
But the problem, at least for Couric, was that the algorithm treated news from any outlet — be it Yahoo-produced or not — with equal weight, rather than favoring its own content. And because there are many more non-Yahoo outlets than Yahoo outlets, the algorithm was much more likely to serve non-Yahoo sites.
Amid all this, Mayer was fighting off a hostile takeover bid. It wasn’t the time to think about journalism.
Depending on whom you ask about whether Yahoo turned a profit on the Couric deal, answers range from “nowhere close” to “maybe” to “probably.”
But it’s more complicated than a balance sheet.
Insiders say that Couric was generous with her time and was hugely valuable in helping the site to court advertisers.
But Couric, who can claim to be an heir to Walter Cronkite — she eventually succeeded him on “CBS Evening News’’ — didn’t get into journalism to take selfies with ad execs.
And her “gets” weren’t that huge in the scheme of things, some insiders said.
She has since started a hugely popular podcast and appeared in an online cooking series for Sur La Table that co-stars her husband, John Molner. She also is producing another cooking show, “Scraps,” for the FYI network.
While to the outside world, the Yahoo experiment had some of the hallmarks of a disaster, in the end, a number of people involved with various parts of the project said they could agree that Couric’s time at the internet giant “was a ‘B,’ but could have been an ‘A+’.”
She may not have proven that a news heavyweight can compete online with broadcast news.
But she did prove, once again, that Katie Couric won’t be stopped.
Couric is in the middle of a PR blitz about her six-part National Geographic series, part two of which aired on Wednesday night.