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Oct. 3, 2011, 4:30 p.m.

Things to know when pondering the ABC News/Yahoo! partnership

Media scholar Josh Braun on why the new team-up could be — especially for ABC News — a very good thing.

So far most of the reporting on the ABC News/Yahoo! partnership hasn’t gone very far beyond the press release. But it’s a hugely ambitious move on the part of both parties. Yahoo! has suffered an onslaught of criticism in recent years as it’s ceded the search market and spread itself thin in the media market. One of the things it does really well, at least from a traffic standpoint, is online news. And the team-up is clearly an attempt to capitalize on this success, as well as to crystalize this portion of its brand. Meanwhile, ABC News has long been ambitious and innovative in its experiments with online video, but has often received relatively little return on its investments.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we find out more about the partnership in the coming days and weeks.

ABC News is in flux. ABC News was one of the big network victims of the economic downturn. Last year, they laid off 25 percent of their total staff, closed all their domestic brick-and-mortar news bureaus outside of Washington, and cut their on-air staff by 50 percent. They said that they’d be making up for the cuts by leveraging digital journalists, which was a rather nebulous statement at the time. But it seemed to indicate they’d be using more one-man-band reporting for their on-air segments, of the sort that would get around traditional union regulations (rules about who can touch the camera and so on).

ABC News: The web video innovator you’ve never heard of. ABC News has long been an early adopter when it comes to web video. Back in the 1990s, their online series, SamDonaldson@ABCNews.com, was the first regular webcast to come from a major U.S. TV news organization. It cost a helluva lot, though — this was back before the days of Skype, cheap digital video cameras, or widespread broadband, so doing the program meant filling a control room with staff, not to mention booking satellite time and driving big TV trucks around for any live or on-location reporting. After that, ABC News continued to innovate in the area of online video. They launched a live-to-web cable network, ABC News Now, in the mid-2000s that very few people watched because it was locked in to certain cellular carriers and broadband providers, and initially required subscription fees. (Despite all that, though, News Now lives on.)

ABCNews.com has a much larger infrastructure for web video than most people appreciate.

The effect was that ABC News spent a bunch of money on original web programming for little return. But it’s been good for auditioning new talent. George Stephanopoulos, for example, auditioned with the SamDonaldson@ABCNews.com webcast.*

And the online channel spun off some of ABC News’ more popular webcasts, like the online political talk show Top Line. World News also initially took a unique approach to podcasting, posting original content online each day rather than simply uploading the taped broadcast from the previous evening.

The bottom line now is that ABCNews.com has a much larger infrastructure for web video than most people appreciate. And with three original webcasts already announced, the Yahoo! partnership already looks poised to make the most of these resources.

Faces to look for. ABC News has some online stars that it can readily capitalize on. Jake Tapper’s Political Punch blog is a huge hit among political junkies, while Good Morning America (GMA) anchor George Stephanopoulos is one of the most followed journalists on Twitter.

A long-sought partnership. Rumors of an ABC News partnership with — well, somebody — have been brewing for awhile. It appears, for example, to have courted Bloomberg News in the past as a potential partner for an expansion into 24-hour cable programming. And it aired live, co-branded broadcasts on Facebook — on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

Ben Sherwood, the news division’s new president, was very clear after he took the helm in late 2010 that they’d be looking for opportunities for partnership and expansion. And while I don’t know that many people expected a partnership with Yahoo! News, it makes a great deal of sense. Even while Yahoo! has flagged in recent years, its news products have remained insanely popular, and Yahoo! News has been considered a major competitor by all three of the online divisions of the major news networks since the beginning of time (in web years, I mean).

The GMA site will be a contender. It’s not surprising that Good Morning America is being spun off as a standalone website. This strategy has been hugely successful for MSNBC.com/NBC News in the form of Today.com — a site that GMA is clearly gunning for. The reasons are manifold. First, the bulk of morning show content gets posted during the daytime, when people are at work, and this is the highest-traffic time for most news websites. It’s a lot easier to promote fresh morning show content than last night’s newscast. Insofar as the content includes a fair amount of life-and-style stuff, it also tends to be a bit more evergreen than evening news content anyway, so it also has more staying power.

Even while Yahoo! has flagged in recent years, its news products have remained insanely popular.

Second, morning news shows go on for a few hours, as opposed to the 22 or 42 minutes for other newscasts, giving you a lot more content with which to populate a website. And the young, majority-female audiences for morning shows tend to consume more online video than other demographics, so you get more bang for your buck by posting clips to a morning show site than to other news properties.

Third, the topics covered by morning shows — fashion, cooking, parenting, and so forth — and, more importantly, the audience they attract, are like catnip for advertisers, making morning shows very lucrative. Today.com has become a juggernaut within the MSNBC Digital Network, and it’s clear that ABC News wants in on the action. ABC has also been nipping at Today’s heels in the TV ratings, and ABC probably feels like going head-to-head online will help seal the deal.

Consider the precedents. It’s hard not to look at the Yahoo!/ABC partnership and not be reminded, at least a little, of the joint Microsoft/NBC venture that brought about MSNBC and MSNBC.com. While some may look at MSNBC and see a tangle of organizational tensions, others will point to the fact that MSNBC.com regularly sits among the three most-trafficked U.S. news sites. It’s ultimately hard to argue with those sorts of numbers.  

And while MSNBC.com journalists are quite excellent at their work — something I would never want to overlook — part of what helps drive all that traffic is the MSN affiliate network, which cranks out links to MSNBC.com stories across a wide array of sites and search results. Yahoo! News, which is regularly ranked as one of — if not the — top U.S. news websites, has the potential to give ABC News some of the same advantages. This may also distinguish it from CBS News’ analogous partnership with CBS Interactive/CNET, which have within them some strong brands but a much more limited reach.

Partnerships between traditional and digital media companies often meet with mixed results — the perils of a divided newsroom are well known, as are the risks of partnerships between organizations with different missions, pursuing different metrics of success. Whether and how ABC and Yahoo! will navigate these tensions remains to be seen. Yahoo! may, over time, downplay the relationship and treat ABC News as just another content provider. This might be good from the perspective of folks who believe a news portal like Yahoo! should be source-agnostic, but could also invite tension with ABC. And ABC News may, by the same token, view Yahoo! as its personal web development firm, which could also quickly sour the relationship.

In short, there are plenty of places where things might go awry.

But the potential benefits, especially for ABC News, are clear. As with other network television news divisions, they have long sought to leverage the Internet to help spread their content around the clock as a means of competing with cable news, and as a way of capturing different (read: younger) audiences who may not tune in to network newscasts. This is a remarkable opportunity in that regard, which could not only increase the exposure of ABC News’ traditional news products, but also give some loft to its more experimental efforts.

*This post initially said that George Stephanopoulos spent time on ABC’s News Now webcast. We’ve updated the section to reflect the fact that Stephanopoulos actually auditioned with Sam Donaldson’s show.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2011, 4:30 p.m.
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