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Yahoo’s future is up in the air

SAN FRANCISCO ó Yahoo Inc. is once again Silicon Valley’s favorite punch line.
Hearing the news that the struggling Internet company had fired Carol Bartz, comedian Andy Borowitz joked on Twitter: “The CEO of Yahoo just resigned. I had never heard of her so I Googled her.”|By Jessica Guynn and Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO ó Yahoo Inc. is once again Silicon Valley’s favorite punch line.

Hearing the news that the struggling Internet company had fired Carol Bartz, comedian Andy Borowitz joked on Twitter: “The CEO of Yahoo just resigned. I had never heard of her so I Googled her.”

But few investors are laughing about the straits in which the once-influential Internet company finds itself.

Firing Bartz without naming a permanent successor signaled that the board may be seriously weighing selling all or parts of the company. Bartz had 16 months remaining on her four-year contract. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company has talked to various banks, including Allen&Co., but has yet to retain an advisor.

“Any time you have an interim CEO situation, you will have a lot of parties be more aggressive,” said Ryan Jacob, portfolio manager of the Jacob Internet Fund, which owns Yahoo shares. “This is a window of opportunity for these guys. Yahoo has a lot of good assets that have not been utilized the right way.”

Among private firms that may be interested are Silver Lake Partners and Providence Equity Partners. An investor group led by former News Corp. executive Peter Chernin made overtures in the past, and major companies expressing interest include AT&T Inc. and News Corp.

The Yahoo board bowed to investor pressure and ousted Bartz on Tuesday after a review from the independent directors concluded that the company was not performing as well as it should under Bartz.

Investors welcomed Bartz’s ouster, driving Yahoo shares up 70 cents to $13.61, a 5.4 percent jump. But they aren’t any happier with Yahoo’s board, which has presided over the company’s decline, including a fumbled takeover bid from Microsoft Corp. in 2008.
After replacing three chief executives in four years, Yahoo is no closer to stopping its steady slide as it struggles to keep pace in a rapidly evolving Internet marketplace.

The company’s revenue and share price have barely budged since Bartz took over Yahoo from co-founder Jerry Yang in January 2009. Since then, the Internet has changed radically, with Google Inc. dominating Internet search and Facebook Inc. social networking. Each has swiped market share in online advertising, in which Yahoo used to shine.

Bottom line: People continue to spend less time and advertisers spend less money on Yahoo.

As the popularity of its portal faded, analysts say, the company struggled to answer a basic question: What is Yahoo?

That lack of vision has hurt the company. Some investors say Yahoo’s $17.2 billion market value could make it too pricey for a prospective buyer to swallow whole, but the company may be sold off in parts.

“Yahoo can’t explain why the sum of the whole is better than the parts anyway,” wrote Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk in a blog post. “So I think in this case, the parts will actually be better valued on their own.”

Bartz’s ouster was widely considered inevitable, though it wasn’t expected until the end of the year.

A seasoned Silicon Valley executive with no experience running an Internet company, Bartz cleaned up operations but failed to deliver the turnaround she had promised. That frustrated investors who had grown increasingly impatient.

“Bartz’s demise underscores that fallen angels in the Internet space are really hard to turn around. Her lack of success raises the risk that perhaps it simply can’t be done by anyone,” Needham&Co. analyst Laura Martin said in a research note Wednesday.

Yahoo still has one of the Internet’s best-known brands, and it’s still one of the most popular online hangouts, with more than 178 million flocking there every month. Its news, finance and sports properties are some of the most popular on the Web. And it has valuable stakes in China’s Alibaba Group and in Yahoo Japan.

The promise of those assets attracted interest from former News Corp. executive Chernin, who led an investor group that approached Yahoo about a possible acquisition this year.

Yahoo’s board is conducting a strategic review to explore the possibility of making acquisitions or forming partnerships. Yahoo is among a handful of bidders for Hulu, a website that provides online viewing of popular broadcast TV shows and movies. Some digital media veterans see potential in combining Yahoo’s media assets with those of Hulu or another online media company such as AOL.

Spearheading Yahoo’s media initiative is former News Corp. digital strategist Ross Levinsohn, who is executive vice president of the Americas region.

Since joining the company last October, Levinsohn has sought to recast the 16-year-old portal as one of the Internet’s premiere digital media companies that ranks among the most-visited websites in the U.S, according to online measurement firm ComScore.

Levinsohn has embarked on a one-man road show to convince advertisers, content partners and investors that Yahoo is still a commanding online presence that shouldn’t be written off. He cites a barrage of statistics to dispel the notion that the site is a digital postscript, noting that Yahoo operates the top sites in 12 publishing categories, including finance, news, sports and entertainment lifestyle.

The veteran Hollywood executive and his new senior management team have been working to better harness Yahoo’s technology and media assets to attract even larger online audiences and keep them on the site longer. Levinsohn recently announced a lineup of eight original, short-form programs targeting women.

These efforts mark another shift in Yahoo’s identity crisis. Santa Monica, Calif., executives share Levinsohn’s vision of Yahoo as a new-media company, while the Silicon Valley headquarters think of it as a technology company, a viewpoint Yang championed.
Standard&Poor’s analyst Scott Kessler says Yahoo is positioning itself as a digital media company again.

“Yahoo has shifted back and forth over the years depending on the CEO’s vision and capabilities,” Kessler said. “The departure of Carol Bartz may have been widely anticipated for other reasons, but the reality was that the company was tilting again to media and that made her less of an asset and less valuable to the company going forward.”
(Chmielewski reported from Los Angeles.)|

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