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It’s not a good idea to speak ill of the dead. It is OK, however, to speak the truth, however harsh it might seem, about the living dead.
Rupert Murdoch’s $580 million MySpace purchase has outlived not only its utility, but has also finally hit its expiration date. That last step came with the announcement this afternoon that Owen Van Natta was stepping down as chief executive of the company. This was nine months after he joined the Los Angeles-based venture. It’s circling the drains, if you ask me.
Is anyone surprised that Van Natta left? I’m not. Rupert Murdoch had put him in charge. Then Jon Miller, the head of News Corp.’s digital operations, brought in two more guys -– Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn. I think you can read between the lines here. You have three guys with a strong emphasis on operations –- sort of like three short-stops on the same baseball team.
When the trio came together, I asked the question, Can Internet’s Free Agents Save MySpace? My take was simple:
News Corp is counting on the equivalent of three Internet free agents to replace Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson and revive MySpace, the big but not so bountiful social network. The three free agents are CEO Owen Van Natta (former COO of Facebook), COO Mike Jones (founder and CEO of Userplane) and Chief Product Officer Jason Hirschhorn (former president of SlingMedia.) These three men are certainly capable, but they are on a mission impossible. I think MySpace Music is a nice niche opportunity — how big of one remains to be seen. For the three free agents — good luck guys! You are really going to need it.
From what I gather, there were conflicts between Van Natta and his boss, Miller. It was clear that someone had to go and it wasn’t going to be Miller, mostly because Murdoch wasn’t around to save Van Natta. This kind of corporate infighting is a sign of a bigger malaise. In many ways, News Corp and Murdoch have lost any and all interest in the web. The fire sales of Photobucket and Rotten Tomatoes are clear indicators that any and every digital property is up for sale. I bet if you showed up with a decent offer for, say, IGN or MySpace, News Corp would be willing to make a deal.
I don’t blame them. With “Avatar” bringing in more revenues than all their digital properties put together, COO Chase Carey, I am told, doesn’t care much for these headache businesses. News Corp’s other businesses, such as its cable networks, are making a decent amount of money as well. The web doesn’t hold much attraction for Rupert Murdoch, who is now enamored with e-readers and tablets.
Tablets, according to those in the know, are being viewed as saviors for News Corp.’s core business: news and information. He thinks that since devices are not that useful without his content, he eventually wins because he will get people to
win pay for his content. “Content is not just king, it is the emperor of all things electronic!” he recently said. But as our Kevin Kelleher essentially summed up in discussing Murdoch and News Corp’s business strategy in this post over the weekend, “Murdoch is right that those devices are lifeless without content, but he neglects to mention that it’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Kevin also noted that Murdoch, and every large media company, need to think like startups. Unfortunately that is no longer in the DNA that defines Murdoch. If he thought like a startup, instead of hiring three managers, the company would have hired a strong chief technology officer, who had the vision and the guts to essentially take the living corpse of a social network and send a shock through its system. They needed someone who could think of and build a Spotify based on MySpace Music!
What the company needed was radical transformation. But what it got was infighting, politicking and constant contraction. At the time Van Natta, Jones and Hirschhorn joined the company it had two things going for it -– the audience and the social graph. There was a time when celebrities used MySpace to stay in touch with their fans. Now they’re all using Twitter.
The audience has started to fritter away, moving to better, more current social environments such as Facebook and Twitter. As for the social graph, I wonder if MySpace really had one. I wouldn’t be surprised if more executives, including those from recently acquired startups such as imeem and iLike, left for greener and more viable pastures.
As my friend Pip Coburn has told me many times, turnarounds never really turn. They usually run aground. Time for Myspace N.O!
* Photo of Owen Van Natta by JD Lassica via Flickr