Yahoo has a “culture problem,” according its former head of Yahoo News.

Guy Vidra, who left Yahoo in late 2014 to take up the post of chief executive editor at The New Republic, believes his former employer is too focused on optimisation at a time when other organisations are exploring new formats and distribution platforms.

“Yahoo’s problem was – and how many of you have heard this – is it a media company or is it a technology company” he asked delegates at Digital Media Strategies USA. “Everyone I’m sure has heard that. Yahoo needs to decide.”

“You come in and you optimise the machine: let’s turn the knobs, let’s add another link here, let’s add another link here.”

Vidra is not the first to make these points, of course. Even back in 2012, Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson was writing about Yahoo’s “people problem“.

Three years on, it is hard to argue with Vidra’s assertion that Yahoo’s “core business is one that’s challenged”.

And the only way to address those challenges, he said, is to “change the culture” to embrace experimentation – something he credited CEO Marissa Mayer with “trying to do”.

Cultural shifts

Cultural shifts – or the lack thereof – are a common bugbear for many companies attempting to transition themselves to keep up with fast-changing audience behaviours and emerging technology.

And if Vidra thought he was leaving this behind when in October 2014 he left Yahoo for The New Republic, a 100-year-old liberal political magazine, he was overly optimistic.

In what he describes, somewhat understatedly, as “a bit of a transition,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief Franklin Foer was essentially forced out with its new CEO, (Vidra), telling staff its print publication would be reduced from 20 to ten issues a year.

He also announced plans to reinvent The New Republic as a “vertically integrated digital-media company”. 

Two-thirds of its editorial staff left in protest, including executive editors Rachel Morris and Greg Veis, and nine senior writers.

“It was an incredibly unfortunate event,” said Vidra. “We had a lot of talent walk out the door, and frankly it put the publication in a very difficult situation for several months.”

The issues behind the disagreement will no doubt be familiar to many legacy publishers.

One of the disagreements, for example, was around how much the publication could – or should – care about being profitable.

Speaking more generally, though perhaps tellingly, Vidra also added that there was also a “fundamental belief in some quarters” that journalism in digital formats is not as valuable as print.

Development culture

Since then, things are apparently looking brighter for The New Republic, which was founded in 1914 with the aim of bringing “sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation”.

Gabriel Snyder as editor, whose resume includes posts at Bloomberg and Gawker Media, was hired as editor.

The New Republic’s online content has also extended into interactives and data visualisations, while its editorial voice has found a foothold in advocacy journalism, proposing solutions to current issues, rather than just reporting on them.

“That vision has been really critical and has really set us on a new path in terms of thinking about the type of reporting that we do, the type of audience we want to reach, the products that we build, and even the ways that we think about monetising,” said Vidra.

Through this type of content, the magazine is engaging a whole new demographic of readers.

The New Republic’s readership was historically 70 per cent male, and around 70 per cent 55 years or older, explained Vidra. However, its coverage around the topic of paid family leave in the US attracted an audience which was 73 per cent women, with 75 per cent of readers aged 23 to 44.

 

However, developing culture is “an ongoing process,” Vidra noted.

“To me, culture is how people are behaving every day,” he said, adding that The New Republic had embraced the notion of “trying new things quickly” while staying loyal to its brand.

“Experiment, measure, iterate – it’s a cycle,” he said, “and that only happens through changing culture.