How Marissa Mayer landed Katie Couric—and measures her value

Katie Couric’s surprising transformation from the “Queen of TV News” to Yahoo’s first global news anchor began on stage, in front of a crowd of unsuspecting CMOs.

At Monday’s annual Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner in New York City, Mayer told Fortune’s Pattie Sellers about how Yahoo (YHOO) first wooed Couric. It all began at a Yahoo CMO summit, where Mayer interviewed Couric on stage (“I did a terrible job,” joked Mayer). The big moment came when Mayer asked her final question: “What’s next for Katie Couric?” Couric answered that she was interested in working in digital. Not surprisingly, that got Mayer’s attention.

Right after they walked off stage, Mayer says she turned to Couric and said, “On your last question, last answer, should we talk?”

They did. Ultimately, that conversation led to the creation of Couric’s global news anchor role, which she began in November of 2013. Since then, Couric has proven that the web can go toe-to-toe with TV–if not in terms of viewership, then at least when it comes to buzz and big “gets.” In her first year and half, she’s snared a series of impressive interviews, including sit-downs with Secretary of State John Kerry, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Collins, the 7th Heaven star accused of sexually abusing minors. (The Collins story, in particular was a traffic bonanza, racking up five million views, according to Yahoo.)

Mayer was coy when Sellers pushed her about how she measures the return on the investment in Couric’s salary–which is reportedly more than $5 million a year. (Couric, who was in the audience on Monday, reacted with a laugh.) Mayer allowed that you could try to put a number on it by looking at the ads that Yahoo has sold against Couric’s program. By that metric, she says, hiring Couric was a “very profitable and a good investment.”

But the real purpose of hiring the anchor, said Mayer, was to raise Yahoo’s “journalistic standard” and make the company a serious player in the news industry, capable of doing more than just republishing third-party content. Couric’s work raises Yahoo’s profile in video, one of the core businesses Mayer is focused on growing.

“Yahoo very early in our history started working a lot on creating content…and not being afraid to entertain and inform,” said Mayer. “It felt right to build on that part of the legacy.”

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