Peter Kafka

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Chris DeWolfe Likely to Step Down as MySpace CEO; News Corp. Talking to Facebook Veteran Owen Van Natta

dewolfeMySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe is likely to be on his way out of the company he helped found, and News Corp., which bought the social network in 2005, has a single potential successor in mind. Sources say that person is former Facebook COO Owen Van Natta, who is currently CEO of music start-up Project Playlist.

People familiar with the matter tell me that DeWolfe and News Corp., specifically new digital boss Jon Miller, are discussing a leadership change today. News Corp. (NWS) officials declined to comment. (News Corp. is the owner of Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)

Sources tell me Miller hadn’t been planning on getting rid of DeWolfe (pictured above) in the near future, and that until yesterday he was still evaluating his options. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch had once treated DeWolfe as a favorite and gave him significant autonomy at MySpace. But Murdoch, who brought Miller on earlier this month, has been leaning toward a change as MySpace’s traffic has stagnated and its buzz and momentum have moved to Facebook.

Still, Murdoch had left the decision about the site’s leadership to Miller, his new hire, sources said. One possibility: Elevating DeWolfe to a nonexecutive advisory position.

Those options narrowed last night once TechCrunch ran a story claiming that News Corp. had hired a headhunting firm to “scour for possible replacements” for DeWolfe.

News Corp. hadn’t actually hired a headhunter, I’m told by multiple sources. But I’m also told that the report was enough to spook DeWolfe into calling Miller to ask what his plans were. That conversation led to today’s negotiations, which will likely lead to his stepping down as CEO, although he may remain affiliated with MySpace in some capacity.

owen-van-nattaMeanwhile, News Corp. has been talking to Van Natta (pictured here) about taking DeWolfe’s place. Van Natta, who had been a highly regarded executive at Facebook, was at one point the leading candidate to head up MySpace Music, which launched last fall, and the two sides held extensive conversations.

But Van Natta, like many other potential hires for that position, bristled at the job’s org chart: Rather than a standalone company, a la Hulu, the site News Corp. set up with GE’s (GE) NBC, MySpace Music is simply a unit of MySpace, reporting to DeWolfe. MTV executive Courtney Holt eventually took the job.

But Van Natta’s fate has remained closely intertwined with MySpace anyway. Project Playlist, the free music-streaming site he took over last fall, has seen traffic plummet after MySpace, along with Facebook, cut off the site’s access to their users, a move prompted by lawsuits from several major music companies.

Van Natta has made some headway at extracting the company from its legal mess, which predated his hiring, and he has hammered out a settlement with EMI Music Group. But Playlist is still being sued by Warner Music Group (WMG) and Vivendi’s Universal Music Group, and even music sites that aren’t in legal trouble are struggling to keep their heads above water. Plenty of Silicon Valley watchers wonder why Van Natta landed at Playlist in the first place and think that he has been looking for a way out.

Here’s a video of DeWolfe talking with BoomTown’s Kara Swisher a little more than a year ago when MySpace opened a new office in San Francisco. Below that is a video of Van Natta talking to Swisher in 2007 about Facebook’s ill-fated “Beacon” project.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work