A dissenting view on the Yahoo - New York Times merger

The reactions to the New York Times - Yahoo merger announcement this morning were predictably brutal. "The best corporate merger since AOL-TimeWarner," TechCrunch wrote. On the radio this morning, one of the commentators talked about "the blind leading the crippled," and joked that they should both merge with General Motors so we could "get all the deadwood together in one place." The impromptu picketing of Yahoo headquarters by angry Flickr users probably didn't help.

I have a different take on the deal, though. After years of failed "new media" ventures based more on hope than synergy, I think this one might actually make business sense. Here's why:

No more paid content fantasies. The Times had been headed down the road toward making its content paid-only for anyone reading more than a few articles a month. In my opinion, this was a huge roll of the dice that could have destroyed the company's long-term prospects. The Times online edition is the most popular newspaper site in the US, and has been very gradually closing the gap with CNN, the US online news leader. Moving to a paid model would have cut the Times audience very substantially, leaving some other news operation to seize the number one position. As we know from other areas of the web, there are very strong network effects online. Once the Times surrendered the online traffic lead, I think its role as the newspaper of record in the US would have gradually been lost.

No more Yahoo search fantasies. Yahoo has had a terrible time deciding what sort of company it wants to be. For a long time it was supposed to be a "new media" company, which apparently meant it had the business practices of a film studio without the cool movie premieres. Many people in Silicon Valley still think of Yahoo as the failed Google wannabe, which is kind of like criticizing Sweden for failing to be Germany.

Unfortunately, Yahoo has been feeding that comparison lately with radio ads touting the benefits of Yahoo search. One was a scenario about a woman who was able to use search to find where a movie was playing, but not the actual showing times of the movies. Let's do a reality check, gang. Have you ever looked up a movie online? Do you know how hard it is to confirm where a movie is playing without also finding the showtimes? The effect of the ad is to position Yahoo as the search engine for stupid people.

And besides, it put the focus back on search, where Yahoo is destined to be an also-ran forever. The company shouldn't drop that business (it generates a lot of cash), but it's not the future engine of Yahoo's growth.

So, what is Yahoo's future? I think its biggest strength, what we used to call in business school its "core competence," is its ability to pair brand ads with content. Yahoo is world class in its ability to work with major brand advertisers to match their online ads with words and pictures that attract the people they want to target. It's not as sexy a business as search advertising (because the revenues and growth rates are not as good), but it's a real business and Yahoo does it better than anyone else I know of.

Yahoo's challenge, in my opinion, has been that not all of its content is top quality, so some of its sites are not as attractive to advertisers as they should be. In places where Yahoo has great content, such as Yahoo Finance, the engine seems to work very nicely. In other areas, Yahoo's content is very me-too, and so are the results.

The synergy. The New York Times' challenge is that it has great content but can't make the online audience large enough to pay for its huge editorial staff (the Times currently reaches 1.25 percent of global Internet users each day, according to Alexa). Yahoo's challenge is that it has huge reach (27% daily reach of global Internet users) but inconsistent quality. Pair the Times' outstanding content with Yahoo's reach and advertising expertise, and maybe you could make the world's most powerful online publisher.

Anyway, that's what the merger's going to test.

Next steps: Clear the decks. To make the merger work, both companies are going to need to focus on what they do best, which means paring away the other businesses they've added in the past as diversification experiments. In the NYT's case, that means letting go of a lot of other media properties the company has picked up over the years. There's going to be just one national news leader, not three, and it doesn't make sense to keep on paying full editorial staffs at several different places, many of them duplicating each others' work.

And at Yahoo, that means stepping back from being an internet conglomerate. Search is important as an on-ramp to quickly get eyeballs to the content of the new Yahoo, but it's not the long-term goal in itself. A friend at Yahoo told me the other day that a third of the company would probably quit if Yahoo decided to focus on publishing. My thought: that might be better than gradually bleeding the best and the brightest throughout the company as they lose faith in Yahoo's overall direction.

A human resources executive at Apple once listened to employees complaining about a reorganization, and then said, "when the caravan starts moving, the dogs all bark." It was a heartless comment, but he had a point. In that spirit, the picketing by Flickr users is probably a sign of healthy change.

Or it would be if any of this post were true. But it's April 1, and I'm indulging in a little bit of tech industry fantasy. In this case, though, I'd call it a dream.

Memories of past April Firsts:

The tech industry bailout (link)
iPhones worn as body piercings (link)
Spitr: Twitter meets telepathy (link)
Sprint and Google, a match made in Kansas (link)