The Yahoo factor: Katie Couric, leaving TV, and the world of online scoops

Had Katie Couric landed an interview with John Kerry in her previous life, it would have gone very differently.

“If I’d been doing it at the ‘Today’ show, I’d have gotten probably five minutes,” she told me.

“And if I’d been doing it at CBS, I probably would have done 3-1/2 minutes,” she says.

Instead, the onetime morning co-host and network anchor conducted the interview for Yahoo, where she now has the lofty title of chief global anchor.

“To be able to sit down and talk to him for 30 minutes about a very complicated topic that people needed a refresher course on, I can’t tell you how liberating and exciting it was. It’s such a multi-faceted story. I could have talked to him for another half hour, but I didn’t want to press my luck.”

In short, who needs television?

Of course, Couric freely admits she was the beneficiary of lucky timing—the Kerry interview had been planned weeks earlier and took place just as Iraq was descending into civil war. And it was television, playing clips of the Yahoo interview—what Couric calls “cross-polinization”-- that gave the sitdown its worldwide impact. (Yahoo has launched a series of online magazines to keep readers engaged and reverse declining ad revenue, the NYT reports.)

The secretary of State himself pointed out that “I am sitting here with you doing it on Yahoo—the landscape has shifted dramatically,” Couric recalls. “He acknowledged there were a lot of different ways to get a message out.”

To my eye, Couric conducted the interview very differently than she would have on TV. She was all business, wearing her glasses, asking policy questions and feeling no need to inject a lighter moment or two. Katie disagrees, saying “tonally, it’s an incredibly important and serious story.” But an online interview isn’t necessarily designed to be consumed in a half-hour sitting; it’s more like raw footage, enabling the host to keep plugging away in an effort to extract some news.

She plans to range widely in future interviews, from science and technology innovators to sports figures to, yes, celebrities. That’s why Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer hired Couric along with other journalists, to sharpen Yahoo’s brand and book some big names.

Couric just wrapped a two-year run hosting a syndicated daytime show, which drew respectable ratings but was not renewed. She conceded the format may not have been a good fit with a largely female audience accustomed to light fare. Jeff Zucker, her old “Today” partner and now president of CNN, was her original producer.

“I’m sort of proud I stuck to my guns and tried not to produce dumbed-down material,” she told me. “There’s a lot of fun stuff in daytime, but I’m not an entertainer. I’m more of a journalist.”

Couric recently narrated and promoted “Fed Up,” a documentary about obesity in America. “That was incredibly fulfilling for me,” she says, because the film “has the potential to be very impactful” by addressing “what we’re becoming as a country in terms of our girth.”

I told Katie I would be excommunicated from the journalism business if I didn’t ask her about getting married.

It took awhile to arrange our call because she was preparing for her wedding this past weekend. The country grieved with Katie in 1998 when she lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to cancer, during her “Today” era, and became a high-profile advocate for fighting cancer. Now, at 57, she just married financier John Molner in the Hamptons.

She pronounced him “super smart” and “super funny” and said the timing was right for her. Katie’s younger daughter, Carrie, is about to leave for college. “I’m an empty-nester,” she said. “I have plenty of room in my nest.”

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