SNL cast helps Marissa Mayer launch Yahoo News Digest

Mayer also announced the first in a series of digital magazines from Yahoo

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer got some help from "Saturday Night Live" cast members Tuesday when she took the stage at the International CES to announce a new app called Yahoo News Digest.

 Marissa Mayer (2)

James Niccolai

SNL cast members Cecily Strong and Kenan Thompson joined Marissa Mayer for her CES keynote

The app, available now in the App Store, pulls together snippets of news from around the Web and presents it in a twice-daily digest that Yahoo says is more readable than wading through the "tsunami" of news information available on the Web.

Mayer was already seen as the "star power" in the CES speaker line-up, and the fact she was joined by two SNL cast members, as well as journalists Katie Couric and David Pogue, made her keynote a spectacle fitting for Las Vegas.

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Cecily Strong, who plays one of the anchors on SNL's Weekend Update news segment, sat at a desk on stage and deadpanned her way through last year's "top tech stories."

"The founders of Snapchat last year turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook and a $4 billion offer from Google," she said. "It was a surprising show of integrity from the guys who invented the app that lets you look at pictures of boobs for five seconds."

SNL's Kenan Thompson, dressed as the Rev. Al Sharpton, also made an appearance and thanked Mayer, whom he referred to as the CEO of "Yoohoo," for having him at the event.

"Who would have thought a small chocolate-milk company like Yoohoo could turn into one of the world's biggest tech giants?" he wanted to know. "It's amazing."

Mayer has worked hard to build up Yahoo's profile as a media company, so it wasn't a surprise to see her launch a news reading app. Couric, who Mayer hired to be Yahoo's "global news anchor," set the stage by decrying the state of today's online journalism. Tenets like accuracy and news judgment take a back seat, she said, and "it's easy to feel like you're drowning in a tsunami of information."

Yahoo News Digest "simplifies news and cures the problem of information overload and 'tl;dr,'" said Yahoo product manager Nick D'Aloisio, employing the abbreviation for "too long; didn't read," a popular rebuttal from people who are sent links online to something to read. D'Aloisio is the British teenager who developed the Summly technology acquired by Yahoo last year, which appears to be at the heart of the new app.

The articles in the digest are "algorithmically produced but editorially curated," he said, without really explaining what that means, but suggesting that computers select the content, which then receives some human oversight.

The app has a clean look, with a single photograph from a current news event filling the home screen. Users can scroll through articles that are each made up of blocks of text pulled from different news sources reporting the same story.

There are links from the original articles at the bottom of the page, which presumably helps Yahoo avoid charges of copyright infringement for republishing other people's content.

There are a finite number of articles, and readers are rewarded when they finish their digest with a message telling them they are "done." That satisfactory sense of completion is missing from people's online news experience today, according to D'Aloisio.

Mayer also announced that Yahoo will start to publish online magazines, with the first two being Yahoo Tech, edited by former New York Times columnist Pogue, and Yahoo Food.

They'll shun banner ads and instead use "native content," which are articles provided by advertisers and styled to resemble other content in the magazine.

It's a controversial way for publishers to make money. Critics say it makes it hard for readers to know when they are reading sponsored content, but Mayer said the native content will be clearly marked.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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