MySpace Chief Executive Owen Van Natta had reportedly clashed with his… (Jakub Mosur / For The Times )
Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles — In the latest blow to what was once the jewel of News Corp.'s digital empire, MySpace Chief Executive Owen Van Natta unexpectedly exited Wednesday after less than 10 months on the job.
Van Natta's departure comes as the media conglomerate struggles to reshape MySpace, a former giant in social networking that has been overtaken by Facebook and confronts new challengers such as Twitter. MySpace's rapid decline also illustrates the perils of placing big bets on digital media, where websites can quickly rise and fall by the mouse clicks of fickle users.
Now Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. hopes to convert MySpace into a portal that guides users to content such as movies, music, TV shows and games, distancing itself from its origins in which people created Web pages to share details of their lives. It remains to be seen whether the site can convince its users to think of it in a fundamentally different way.
News Corp. acquired the Beverly Hills-based website five years ago in a deal valued at $580 million as part of a $1.5-billion-plus digital media buying binge that was intended to transform the traditional media company for the 21st century. After a series of missteps and a downturn in Internet advertising, however, News Corp. was forced last year to take a $403-million write-down in its quarter that ended June 30 for its interactive division, the primary assets of which are MySpace and video game website IGN.
But Van Natta, who was recruited from Facebook last April by Murdoch to turn things around, soon started clashing with News Corp. digital media chief Jon Miller, according to people familiar with the situation who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record. One person said that tensions had escalated in recent weeks, culminating in Van Natta's departure.
Miller acknowledged in a statement that he had a role in Van Natta's departure.
"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," Miller said.
Van Natta is being replaced by two of his key lieutenants, Chief Operating Officer Mike Jones and product chief Jason Hirschorn, who have assumed the titles of co-presidents. Both are close to Miller.
A Silicon Valley veteran, Van Natta joined Facebook in its early days after stints at companies including Amazon.com. He served first as Facebook's chief operating officer, then as its chief revenue officer and vice president of operations. During his tenure, he helped broker Facebook's $240-million investment from Microsoft and to hire many of its executives. He left Facebook in 2008 because he aspired to have the top job at a major consumer Web company.
He next became CEO of a music start-up called Project Playlist which stumbled when MySpace and Facebook cut off access to their users. Van Natta then took the top job at MySpace as part of a digital media shake-up that saw Miller brought in the month before and the site's co-founder, Chris DeWolfe, pushed out. One of his first assignments was to lay off more than 30% of MySpace's employees.
At the time Van Natta joined MySpace, the site's traffic was stagnating -- a trend he was unable to reverse. In December, it attracted 70 million visitors, according to ComScore Media Metrix, down from 78 million a year earlier. Facebook more than doubled its monthly traffic to 112 million in that same period.
MySpace's drop in traffic has led to it falling $100 million short of the $900 million it expected to receive as part of a deal with Internet search giant Google that is set to expire this year.
Hirschorn and Jones were also brought in last April to MySpace. Jones was a former entrepreneur who served as a senior vice president at AOL. Hirschorn had been president of Sling Media's entertainment group and chief digital officer for MTV Networks.
But the group of high-powered executives proved unable to work in unison, said two people close to the company, leaving Van Natta increasingly frustrated.
Times staff writers Alex Pham and Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.