New Yahoo News editor-in-chief: ‘I’m always looking for a great story’

Last month, Hillary Frey became editor-in-chief of Yahoo News.

In a telephone interview, Frey told Poynter her primary goal is to showcase original content produced by Yahoo’s team of reporters, editors and videographers, as well as forge a clear brand identity for Yahoo News.

Frey, who came to Yahoo last November as managing editor, said her first order of business is shepherding and showcasing Yahoo’s upcoming originally-produced election coverage.

Yahoo already has a reporter on the road with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and for the first time ever, a White House correspondent too. The news organization also provided extensive primary election coverage, including reports on the debates that it produced in conjunction with its partner, ABC News.

Frey said Yahoo is pushing out more original content than it ever has.

Frey declined to talk about her new boss, newly minted CEO Marissa Mayer, but she told BuzzFeed in an earlier interview that the two had not yet met, and that she was “proud to work for a place that put not just a woman but a pregnant woman in the top spot.” (Frey had her first child recently.)

In a conversation with Poynter, presented below in edited form, Frey discussed her career path, how she finds new talent, balancing work and motherhood, as well as her vision for Yahoo News.

Poynter: How does a young journalist climb the ladder to where she can get paid well and do significant work?

Hillary Frey: My first job I worked for a literary agent because I was interested in culture, books and the arts. That is what got me to New York, but I realized working in the book publishing industry wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be; I wanted to be writing more. The first magazine job I took I worked on the business side, in advertising at Lingua Franca, which was this amazing magazine that covered academic life. It’s not around any more. But it put me in a position that, when it was time to hire an editorial assistant, I got the job.

It’s not exactly the path that I would recommend, starting on the business side, but for young people starting in journalism and getting their feet wet, I think it’s really good to know as much as you can about how the entire place operates. Certainly, learning about production and the business side are assets even if your aspiration is to be a reporter. My basic advice to anybody who wants to be writing is to get out on the street, learn how to report, don’t be shy, and hone those reporting skills. And then work on the writing because really, really good reporting is so exciting, and there’s not enough of it. Once you nail those skills, you’ll find your way.

A lot of people are starting their own sites or their own small publications. In this environment knowing all these different aspects of the operation can only give you more control over your destiny.

You started out in book publishing, which led to a job running the books section of Salon.com, which in turn led to jobs at The Nation, The New York Observer, Politico, Adweek and now Yahoo. How are the companies you’ve worked for different as news organizations? How does that inform your work now?

Frey: Working at the Observer, I started under Peter Kaplan, that was the first time I really worked in a newsroom with reporters and editors with a beat structure. I took that experience and then launched a culture section when the paper went from broadsheet to tabloid. In the time I was there, I moved over to the media desk, and I was media editor, where I had four great reporters working directly with me on their stories and on their Web pieces. I loved being in that clear structure where the reporters reported to me and I reported to the higher-up editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief. It created a really clear chain of command.

I like a beat structure and working in that kind of environment. I think it gives reporters a clear idea of who to go to, who to lean on for advice, for direction and editing input. All of that creates a really important tie between the editor and the reporter.

Hillary Frey became Yahoo! News editor-in-chief last month.

The beat structure at Yahoo is clear, but as we look to developing more content in different areas, we’ll be growing the organization here and there. We’ll be going along with that sort of structure having people really clearly report to specific people.

One of the things that’s really fun for me being at Yahoo, with all the partners that we have and work with — whether it’s working with Time.com, The Daily Caller, all of these various organizations out there — I’m getting to do a breadth of reading and sort of engaging on all different topics that I haven’t been able to do for quite a while.

Unlike with Adweek, where we were really focused on the business of media and technology, here we’re looking generally and broadly at news every day. I’m getting to go back, read a lot more widely and look at these partners and all the great content that they have to offer. Before, I’d gotten sort of specialized and now I’m getting to do more of a bigger picture look at news than I’d been able to do previously.

Where do you look for talent?

Frey: When I have a role to fill, I just blast out to anybody I know or people I know or co-workers will know of someone. Also, we just read a lot out there online and in print and everywhere else. Bylines will stand out to you and you think, that person is doing amazing work, maybe we’ll have the opportunity to bring them into the fold. We lean on our network of co-workers and past co-workers and you wind up with great ideas of people in far-flung areas who can do different things.

What kinds of skills do the people who get hired by Yahoo News possess?

Frey: I’m always looking for a great story. Whether it’s a writer or an editor, what you want to see in their work is just being able to tell a great story, whether it’s through an essay, through reporting, or through a profile. I always admire anybody who can break news or make a little news even if it’s in the context of a feature.

In addition to writers, Yahoo has brought in an amazing video team. We recently had our team travel to Virginia to interview Mormons about a possible Romney presidency. We look for people are able to think about different kinds of shows that we can do with Yahoo studios, or how we can bring in a video team to do specialized pieces for us during the election. We’re always looking for really exciting, different, new ideas in terms of working with contributors and freelancers who are out in the world.

You’ve said you didn’t expect to have a new promotion and a new baby at the same time, how are you balancing the two?

Frey: I have a really great husband who is really helpful, and our families have been really helpful since I’ve been back at work. My day starts early with the baby and I get to spend time with her before I come into the office. But it’s great here because it’s bi-coastal. A lot of the people I work with are in Santa Monica and, for better or for worse, I’m not with them day-to-day, face-to-face. We know how to work virtually very well. There’s a lot you can do with a baby and a Blackberry if that’s the way you sort of need to get things done. I think the balance, it’s definitely like testing it out and I’m learning a lot, but so far it’s been great.

We’re taking [the baby] to the Republican Convention for sure because my husband [Mark Lotto, a senior editor at GQ] also has to go for work.

What is Yahoo’s plan for convention coverage?

Frey: Yahoo will announce exciting plans that we will reveal in just a few weeks. I will say that we’ll have a huge presence at the conventions. I can tell you that we’re sending the majority of the news editorial staff.

What are the current needs of the company in terms of the news division?

One thing that we’re focusing on right now is figuring out how to better surface our original reporting and our Yahoo talent clearly on Yahoo and Yahoo News. That’s a major priority for everybody because we’re the world’s biggest news organization (in terms of audience), we want people who come to visit us to realize that a lot of what they’re reading, engaging with and are excited about is being homegrown here at Yahoo. That’s probably the main priority that I’m thinking about and that a lot of people here are thinking about.

What are your major goals for the coming 12 months?

Frey: I’ll be looking more closely at the user experience and, as we work to push our original content out to the world, also paying attention to things like video and text and how they play best together.

We have a great opportunity with the election this year. We’ve already done so much in the spring and winter of last year. We exhaustively covered the primary and the debates, and had some pretty exciting moments doing debates with ABC, which is our main news partner. What I’m really focused on right now is just ensuring that our election experience going through the fall is really exciting, different and making sure that the people on my team have all the support and backing that we need to get it done.

Correction: This post originally stated that Hillary Frey was the first ever editor-in-chief of Yahoo News; she was not.

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