Rebuilding a Brand, While Shaping a Digital Media Empire
Former New York Times deputy editor Megan Liberman is a seasoned leader and innovator in digital journalism. Recently, she took on the biggest challenge of her career as editor-in-chief of Yahoo News. Liberman’s charge is no simple task: reinventing, rebranding, and expanding Yahoo’s news-gathering operation to produce more original digital content, including video, live-event coverage, and news commentary. The remaking of the news division is a big part of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s plan to turn around the struggling Silicon Valley tech company, which some experts say is lagging behind competitors Google and Facebook in product development and innovation.
The energetic journalist is thrilled to be leading change at Yahoo’s New York-based news site, which company executives say has the largest global audience on the Internet, with 565 million people visiting its news home page daily. “Yahoo News has all the energy of a start-up, without any of the anxiety of going bankrupt or folding,” Liberman says.
Vice president of Yahoo News and Finance Rob Barrett says Liberman is the key to the news site’s transition. With more than 5,000 content partners, Yahoo wants to move from being known as a news aggregator to being recognized as a serious news creator. “Megan is a great talent as a manager and can envision how this will come together over time,” he says.
During an interview, Liberman strides confidently through Yahoo’s large, but orderly, newsroom in midtown Manhattan, wearing a purple dress that, she jokes, “almost matches” Yahoo’s bright logo. “Here’s where Katie and her people will sit,” she says pointing to a large empty space, ready for construction, in the corner of the newsroom. “It was a conference room until just this morning.” Liberman is referring to Yahoo’s latest talent acquisition—veteran broadcast journalist Katie Couric as the site’s marquee “global anchor.” Bringing on Couric—with a reported annual salary in the millions—is a huge sign that Yahoo is fully committed to video journalism. “She seems really excited for an opportunity in digital,” says Liberman about Couric. (Couric did her first broadcast a few weeks after this visit.)
Sitting down in the small, brightly lit employee cafe, Liberman says she has always been drawn to jobs where she can realize her vision. The editor says she doesn’t need a byline or the recognition that comes with it. “I like the idea of building something, running something,” she says. “I’m way more interested in control, rather than glory.”
News and current events, especially politics, were a “huge focus” in Liberman’s family when she was growing up on the Upper West Side. Her mother, Mickey Blum, now a partner in a well-known political-polling firm, was at the time manager of the NBC News polling operations; Liberman became a political junkie at a young age. “My life as a kid ran on election cycles,” she says. “I used to jump rope to C-SPAN.”
She graduated from Horace Mann, a private college-prep school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. She then majored in political science at Barnard, where she learned “you can do something interesting with your life and carve your own path.” The lifelong New York City resident says she originally chose political science with a goal of working in academia. But she soon realized a need to be more connected to the day-to-day political conversation. “Academia felt too removed from the world for me,” she says. “Journalism seemed more in the present.”
Graduating in the midst of a recession, Liberman took a job at a small children’s book publisher. It turned out to be a great opportunity to learn the business and to “do everything,” as she was the only staff member in the three-partner firm. But it was clear that, like academia, the book world was not her speed. “Book publishing was way too slow.”
Liberman then took the plunge into the news media, attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and earning her master’s in 1995. With degree in hand, she landed a position as executive editor of Swing, a now-defunct magazine targeted at Generation X. By the late ’90s, Liberman’s penchant for leadership and product development was solidified at her next job at Us Weekly magazine. As executive editor she oversaw the publication’s transition from a monthly to a weekly, where she “hired dozens of people in a few weeks.” The magazine was in the process of rebranding itself, much as Yahoo is. “We tried to be the younger, hipper People. I think we succeeded.”
Liberman’s next leap two years later—to The New York Times—formed the heart of her career until now. She visibly relaxes when she talks about the Times, a place where she was clearly comfortable. Liberman spent more than a decade at the venerable newspaper, most of it at the Times Magazine where she started as a story editor, focusing on culture and politics.
In 2006, Liberman was named the first web editor for the magazine, which she shepherded into the digital era, organizing pieces exclusively for its website and developing interactive videos. “Before that, nothing was produced specifically for the web,” says Liberman, who also directed political coverage and edited the magazine’s political blog. She was promoted to deputy editor of the Times Magazine in 2008, but stayed “immersed in digital.” Liberman created the Motherlode parenting blog, even though it took some time to convince management it was actually needed. “The work-life stories were some of our most popular conversation starters,” she says. “But there was no one place for that content to live.”
She knew the intensity parents felt for the subject because she was doing a juggling act herself, living in Park Slope with her husband—also a journalist, whom she met in graduate school—and two young children, now 9 and 12. “It’s always the conversation for working moms.” Liberman says no matter what choice mothers make they always second-guess themselves. “I chose to work,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel conflicted.” For her, having a supportive husband who drops the kids off at school each morning is a big plus. But then Liberman recalls the painful moments when she does show up at school, “and the other moms say, ‘Who are you?’”
Back at the Times, Liberman became deputy news editor, focusing on digital. Her big coup was encouraging numbers-crunching whiz Nate Silver to talk with the Times about bringing his FiveThirtyEight blog to its website. He did join the organization, and in his three years there, Silver helped exponentially increase web traffic to the paper’s political coverage, exemplified during the 2012 presidential election. Liberman was his editor, while she also oversaw live video coverage of political events.
In 2013, she was not actively seeking to leave the Times, but was at the point where, “I had bumped up against what I could do there,” she avers. A friend at Yahoo happened to call and ask if she knew anyone who might want the tech company’s top news job. “I thought about it and then said, ‘Yeah, I think I might,’” she remembers with a smile.
Yahoo liked Liberman’s ideas and she joined the tech giant last September. She quickly recruited two former highly regarded Times colleagues to strengthen her team—political reporter Matt Bai and technology guru David Pogue. But that’s just the beginning of the Yahoo News staff expansion plan, which includes hiring established names, while nurturing up-and-coming reporters. “Attracting talent is like a snowball rolling downhill,” Liberman says. “The more you bring in, the more want to come.”
CEO Mayer—who sparked a work-life debate herself by taking only two weeks of maternity leave several months after she joined Yahoo—says she brought Liberman in because she sees opportunity in news. “Megan’s hire reinforces our commitment to delivering the best possible news and content experiences to our users, and we will continue to invest in our talent here,” Mayer recently told investors.
With the pressure on to perform at Yahoo, plus a busy family life, Liberman finds her balance in exercise. She jumps rope nearly every morning at home and escapes once a week to a yoga class. “It’s such a cliché, but yoga is sanity for me,” she says. “My family realizes it’s worth it for everyone if mom goes to yoga once in a while.” The fast-moving Liberman says savasana, yoga’s final resting pose, was difficult initially. “But once you give over to it, it’s pretty powerful.”
She notes her career path keeps taking her to faster- and faster-paced organizations. “It’s where the business went, but it fits my metabolism.” Excited by the “signature” opportunity to craft a news organization, given the current upheaval of the media industry, she states firmly, “No one says, ‘Here, come help us build a media company,’ these days.”