Chat From the War Zone
Yahoo Inc. has been talking like a major media company. Today it will start acting like one.
Ten months after Lloyd Braun, former chairman of the ABC television network, began plotting the company’s content strategy, the Internet giant plans to announce today the first of many original programs expected to come from the Yahoo Media Group headquarters in Santa Monica.
Yahoo, which for years recycled traditional media companies’ work on the Web, has hired its first news gatherer. Kevin Sites, who stirred international debate by filming a Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi in a Fallouja mosque last fall, will spend the next year reporting from nearly three dozen war zones across the globe.
In an Internet-age twist on the nightly news report, on Sept. 26 he will begin filing video, audio and text dispatches to Yahoo News each day and hold live chat and videoconferencing sessions from the world’s most brutal conflicts.
The program, “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone,” is the clearest evidence yet that Yahoo feels ready to compete with TV networks for viewers and advertisers. A decade after the launch of the first commercial Internet browser, the medium is maturing rapidly enough to pit its biggest players against the giants of other media.
The news business will become the testing ground for entertainment and other content, analysts said, because many of its youngest consumers have turned away from traditional sources.
“It’s not that young people aren’t interested in news -- it’s just that they’re increasingly unfulfilled by traditional delivery of news,” said Jack MacKenzie, senior vice president of entertainment at Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm. The Kevin Sites program “seems to have all the elements that would be appealing to the millennial generation for which Yahoo is so popular.”
Yahoo isn’t the only new media company with this idea. Time Warner Inc.'s America Online is also developing original programming, such as “The Biz,” an online reality show about the music industry. Years ago, Microsoft Corp. launched the online magazine Slate (now owned by Washington Post Co.) and started the MSNBC cable network with NBC.
The world’s biggest media companies are also fighting back. For example, News Corp. has spent about $1.5 billion this year to acquire Internet companies, including the gaming concern IGN Entertainment Inc. and MySpace.com, a popular social-networking site.
But with its recent hires and lease of a massive office building in Santa Monica, Yahoo appears to many observers to be the most committed to becoming a next-generation media giant.
Today’s planned announcement of the Kevin Sites program may answer the question that has often left the lips of Hollywood deal makers since Braun joined the company in November: What the heck is Yahoo up to?
“Yahoo’s starting to show their cards in respect to how they’re planning on innovating upon the traditional media experience,” said Patrick Mahoney, an analyst in Los Angeles who follows digital media for Yankee Group.
Braun, Yahoo’s head of media and entertainment, has fielded a constant stream of pitches from managers, lawyers and talent agents, he said in a recent interview. They had all heard that Yahoo was looking for original programming to make a run at traditional media, but few of their ideas impressed Braun as being different enough from TV.
“Many fall into the trap, which I fell into before I came here, of thinking that Yahoo is in the linear television business in some way, shape or form, and we’re not,” he said. “Until we actually start to implement some of the ideas we’re working on internally, people won’t have a sense of exactly what we want to do.”
But Joel Behr got it. The Los Angeles lawyer called Braun last spring and floated the idea for a news program that tries to report from every recognized armed conflict, from the famous such as Iraq and Afghanistan to places where many Americans don’t know there’s fighting.
After meeting Sites, Braun recalled, “literally within 10 seconds I told him I wanted to do it.”
Sites, a 42-year-old who has reported for NBC, CNN and ABC from areas torn by wars and natural disasters, had grown tired of the constraints and conventions of television journalism. The sentiment was strengthened last year when NBC aired his footage from the Iraqi mosque, a decision that won him awards from journalism groups and thousands of death threats from critics who labeled him a traitor.
Despite his best efforts to explain the circumstances surrounding the shooting during his broadcast story, Sites felt that the blog he set up the previous year, at www.kevinsites.net, provided the only way to adequately convey the rationale behind his decision to share the footage with the world.
“As journalists we have to take full responsibility for our work, and sometimes the medium we work in isn’t enough,” Sites said.
After Behr connected him with Yahoo and Braun greenlighted the project, Sites began planning his route, he said, getting immunizations for “everything from yellow fever to Japanese encephalitis.” He also hired an NBC News producer to run his “mission control,” a group in Yahoo’s Santa Monica office that will help Sites plan trips and send him supplies such as fresh video discs and “Lonely Planet” guides.
Sites plans to travel solo, armed with a nearly 40-pound sack filled with cameras, a notebook computer, satellite phones and other gadgets. He said he intended to show the human face of the armed conflicts by highlighting, for example, how fighting in Somalia has damaged a particular family.
“I’m not going to just go out and report the headlines -- Yahoo already does that” through partnerships with news agencies, he said.
Braun said several TV networks have expressed interest in compiling footage from Sites’ travels into a weekly show. He may do that, he said, but added that the last thing he wanted to do was present standard TV fare on Yahoo.
“We’re presenting an experience that does not exist anywhere else,” Braun said. “There will be other voices besides Kevin Sites that take advantage of what this medium has to offer.”