Peter Kafka

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Owen Van Natta Out at MySpace

Owen Van Natta, the prominent Internet executive brought in to overhaul MySpace, has left after less than a year.

News Corp. (NWS), which owns the social network, has replaced the CEO with his former lieutenants, Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn, who have been named co-presidents.

It is Van Natta’s second consecutive short-tenured job. Prior to MySpace, he ran music start-up Project Playlist, where he stayed for less than six months. Van Natta built his reputation at Facebook and Amazon (AMZN).

A  press release spins this as a mutual decision between Van Natta and Jon Miller, the News Corp. executive who joined the company less than a year ago himself to run digital operations. But that’s going to be a difficult story to sell.

For starters, it’s clear that attempts to turn the social network around are taking much longer than expected, as News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch acknowledged last week during the company’s earnings call.

Last fall, News Corp. disclosed that MySpace and the rest of the company’s digital portfolio were coming up short on their end of a $900 million, three-year search deal with Google (GOOG), which meant News Corp. would receive around $100 million less than originally anticipated.

That may be in part because of changes the new MySpace leadership made to the site’s design, which cut down on some of the page views the old site created. But the shortfall was primarily because the MySpace audience has been migrating to other sites, particularly Facebook, for some time.

MySpace executives have been overhauling the site, mainly under the hood, and rolling out a series of incremental changes in recent weeks. These changes aren’t supposed to win back Facebook users–the company has declared that it’s no longer trying to compete with that site as a social network anymore–but are designed to help it hang on to existing users and establish itself as some sort of entertainment hub.

A tough task under any circumstance. But tensions in the corporate suite didn’t make it easier. Miller hired Van Natta, but the CEO didn’t bring in the two executives directly beneath him; both Jones and Hirschhorn were hired by Miller (along with Murdoch, who signed off on both men).

People who have talked to Van Natta say he has been relatively public about his frustrations at the job in recent weeks. Describing Jones and Hirschhorn as happy campers would be a stretch, too.

But whatever finally prompted the move seems to have come relatively quickly: The MySpace and News Corp. insiders I’ve talked to so far seem taken aback by Van Natta’s departure.

(Full disclosure: News Corp. owns Dow Jones, which owns this site.)

Here is the official press release from News Corp.:

Owen Van Natta Steps Down as MySpace CEO; ?Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn Elevated to Co-Presidents

Los Angeles, CA, February 10, 2010–News Corporation today announced that Owen Van Natta will step down from his position as MySpace CEO, effective immediately. Mr. Van Natta will be replaced by newly-elevated co-Presidents Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn, who will each report to Jon Miller, Chairman and CEO of Digital Media for News Corporation.  All three executives joined MySpace in April 2009, with Mr. Jones and Mr. Hirschhorn previously serving as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Product Officer, respectively.

“Owen took on an incredible challenge in working to refocus and revitalize MySpace, and the business has shown very positive signs recently as a result of his dedicated work,” said Jon Miller, News Corporation’s Chairman and CEO of Digital Media. “However, in talking to Owen about his priorities both personally and professionally going forward, we both agreed that it was best for him to step down at this time. I want to thank Owen for all of his efforts.”

Mr. Miller continued, “Mike and Jason have demonstrated true leadership in their operational and product guidance, respectively, and I have the utmost confidence in both of them to lead MySpace into its next chapter.”

In a joint statement, Mr. Jones and Mr. Hirschhorn noted:

“We joined MySpace last April with very a specific set of goals in mind, and are anxious to continue working together to make those goals a reality. This business is now pointed in the right direction, and we have a great team of employees that will continue to push MySpace closer to its potential as the place where people go to be discovered and to discover great content.”

Mr. Van Natta commented:

“MySpace is an incredibly unique place and we’ve made real gains in terms of product focus and user experience.  I’m proud of the work we’ve all accomplished together and look forward to watching its continued growth.”

Prior to his role as MySpace COO, Mr. Jones founded and operated several online businesses, including Userplane, a leading provider of tools for online communities such as MySpace. Userplane was acquired in 2006 by AOL, where Jones subsequently served as a senior vice president and focused on social media monetization and also pioneered the distribution of widgets and other technology to Web publishers. He also was founder and CEO of Tsavo Media, an online content and search network developing next-generation publishing platforms and technology services.

Since joining MySpace, Mr. Hirschhorn oversaw all aspects of product development, and previously has led both start-up and established online businesses. He was president of Sling Media, Inc.’s Entertainment Group, which created consumer-driven applications and services for the Slingbox device, and was chief digital officer at MTV Networks, where he oversaw the company’s digital media businesses, products and strategies. Hirschhorn joined MTV Networks following the acquisition of his company, Mischief New Media, which provided interactive services to the entertainment industry.


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