Yahoo (YHOO) has been trying to leverage its leading position in the portal business into a comparable dominance of premium content. But it's not so easy for a technology company to build a culture of journalism -- as the defection of one of its high-profile journalists illustrates.
In April, Yahoo hired Gawker's investigations editor, John Cook, to be the senior national affairs reporter for The Upshot, the news blog it was launching. While Cook (who is a friend and former colleague of mine) was joining a talent-packed team that also came to include Holly Bailey from Newsweek, Chris Lehmann from Congressional Quarterly and Michael Calderone from Politico, among others, his jilted boss, Gawker Media owner Nick Denton, pooh-poohed the move, saying Cook was "about to disappear into the maw of Yahoo."
It didn't take long for Cook to come around to Denton's way of seeing things. "Sadly, John Cook is heading back to Gawker," Andrew Golis, who runs The Upshot, wrote on his blog Wednesday. "John's a brilliant reporter, but he decided that he prefers the license Gawker gave him to add his opinions into his reporting to the scale and credibility Yahoo! News could offer."
But Cook offers a different interpretation of his move, saying that Yahoo's corporate conservatism repeatedly got in the way of his attempts to report the news. In one instance, Cook was forced to bowdlerize a quotation from New York Times reporter James Risen; he was told that referring to masturbation, even euphemistically, was unacceptable. On similar grounds, he was prohibited from writing about the conservative website Free Republic being used to promote child pornography*. Most glaringly, he was told that a proposed story on the Obama Administration raising the salary of White House staffers by 9% lacked the necessary balance; it was killed.
"As Andrew mentioned, I really valued being able to write what I think without somebody worrying about whether it will upset somebody, or meets the sort of balancing test that newspapers apply to themselves," Cook says. Also, he adds, "I think Nick Denton is going to win the Internet."
Whatever else you want to say about him, Denton has never discouraged his employees from using strong language, writing about controversial topics, or even venturing into legal gray zones to get stories.
I asked Golis about Cook's claim that Yahoo places excessive constraints on its journalists. His response: "We have nothing but respect for John as a reporter and a person and we wish him well."
DISCLOSURE: John Cook, as mentioned above, is a friend. Also, DailyFinance's parent, AOL, like Yahoo, is a technology/communications company that's building a large original content business. The two companies compete on a variety of fronts.
CORRECTION: Originally, this story said Free Republic was hosting child pornography. According to the Salon article that I linked to, Free Republic was not hosting it but being used to direct readers to an outside site that hosted it.
Muzzled Reporter Says 'Maw of Yahoo' No Place for Journalism