Kara Swisher

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Could AOL Merge With Yahoo? Could News Corp. Make a Play? Takeover 2.0 With a Little Help From China's Alibaba?

Today, as news of the departure of Yahoo’s U.S. head Hilary Schneider and two other top execs got around Wall Street, investors and dealmakers were actually thinking of things other than executive turmoil.

As in: Does the uncertainty, along with a naggingly lackluster stock price and weak growth, create pressure on its CEO Carol Bartz and its board to do something dramatic?

In addition, does the messy public situation even provide an opportunity to put Yahoo into play, despite its market cap of $19 billion?

These and many more are the scenarios being debated in boardrooms of big media and Internet companies today, as well as at private equity firms, investment banks and even in Asia.

That’s because many are focusing on Yahoo’s Asian investments. Yahoo (YHOO) itself owns almost 35 percent of Yahoo Japan and a 40 percent stake in China’s Alibaba Group, assets that now make up–along with cash on hand–most of the company’s valuation.

Alibaba and Yahoo have recently gotten into an ugly public tussle over the Chinese firm’s desire to buy back the shares now, with Bartz holding out for more appreciation.

Now, she might have to do a deal with Alibaba, according to one theory, because a sale of its stake would give Yahoo’s stock a significant boost.

One problem: Alibaba CEO Jack Ma has made it known to anyone who will listen that he loathes Bartz personally, after a series of awkward encounters. That said, he has a close relationship with former Yahoo CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang, who is on both companies’ boards.

That puts Ma in an interesting position, according to another theory, because other U.S. companies with an interest in Yahoo might try to make a deal with him to do some kind of deal with Yahoo.

Most frequently mentioned by big investors in Yahoo: AOL (AOL) and its CEO Tim Armstrong.

Armstrong, said sources, has not shied away from the idea of Yahoo acquiring AOL and installing him as CEO with Bartz as chairman. AOL’s valuation is just $2.65 billion.

Although AOL has also been trying to turn itself around and is in a much less powerful position than Yahoo, Wall Street likes Armstrong’s story for AOL as a modern-day media and media distribution company.

“At least he has a narrative that is believable,” said one big investor in both companies. “Bartz has no vision.”

Another plus for Armstrong: His friendly and Don Draper-smooth demeanor, in contrast to Bartz’s tough-talking and now too-often curse-laden patter.

And while Bartz is losing execs, Armstrong has assembled an experienced staff. And he himself has deep online advertising sales experience, given his last job as head of U.S. sales at Google (GOOG).

Also likely to be interested: New Corp. The reason is that its own digital efforts, especially at the MySpace social networking site, have gone sideways.

And there’s history: News Corp. (NWS) tried to facilitate a merger of MySpace, MSN and Yahoo into a company codenamed “TrafficCo” at the time Microsoft was attempting a takeover of Yahoo.

It was supposed to be headed by former Microsoft exec and now Juniper (JNPR) CEO Kevin Johnson, another possible Yahoo CEO candidate.

That plot did not pan out and News Corp. has been trying mightily to revive MySpace ever since. It certainly would trade it into Yahoo for some stake.

Another hook: Its digital head Jon Miller, who used to be CEO of AOL, almost was CEO of Yahoo, during that same takeover fight. But a noncompete agreement with Time Warner (TWX) was enforced by CEO Jeff Bewkes at the time.

Both AOL and News Corp. could certainly make approaches to Ma or Yahoo Japan’s Masayoshi Son to agree to help them get back their Yahoo stakes.

Son was the one who made the move recently to switch out Yahoo search for Google in Japan.

And, by the way, Son was one of Yahoo’s earliest investors.

Confused? Well, it is certainly shaping up to be a lively Silicon Valley goat rodeo, as there are also all kinds of private equity companies with spreadsheets already figured if Yahoo shares decline enough.

And there are other ideas spinning on spins into Yahoo, such as Demand Media, which is prepping an IPO, and its perpetually enthusiastic CEO Richard Rosenblatt.

One unlikely player is Microsoft (MSFT). The once hostile suitor is now a partner to Yahoo in search and online advertising.

Of course, the last and biggest question is what happens between Bartz and the board. While they seem to have backed her this far, she has not performed as she has promised and now seems to have gotten publicly grumpy about all the pressure to do so.

Will the directors, who proved themselves pretty ineffectual in the past, continue to support her? Or will they find some self-protecting way to ease her out?

Some directors are definitely unhappy, sources said, but no one seems to be in charge or particularly influential.

Which could mean even more confusion as Yahoo moves unsteadily forward.

Until it all settles down, please enjoy this video of an actual goat rodeo:


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald