MySpace CEO is out after less than a year

Owen Van Natta and MySpace agree to part ways after he spends just 10 months as the company's CEO.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
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Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Elinor Mills
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5 min read

MySpace Chief Executive Owen Van Natta is stepping down less than one year after assuming the job, parent company News Corp. announced late on Wednesday.

Van Natta's resignation is effective immediately. He will be replaced by Mike Jones, chief operating officer, and Jason Hirschhorn, chief product officer, who are being promoted to serve as co-presidents, News Corp. said in a statement.

The new co-presidents will each report to Jon Miller, chairman and chief executive of digital media for News Corp. Asked whether the company would be looking to hire a new CEO for MySpace, spokeswoman Dani Dudeck said the company was not commenting beyond the statement.

Van Natta joined MySpace in April 2009 when MySpace CEO and co-founder Chris DeWolfe stepped down amid a continuing management shakeup.

"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," Miller said in the statement. "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."

Van Natta said MySpace had made real gains "in terms of product focus and user experience" and that he is "proud of the work we've all accomplished together."

MySpace executives have reached out to some of the major music labels in an apparent attempt to ease any concerns they may have about the management shakeup, according to music industry sources.

But there's only so much that MySpace can do about this one, image-wise: this is a significant blow to the onetime social-networking leader as it attempts to revamp itself as a hub for discovering the latest in pop culture. It's reliant on content and advertising deals, and has to maintain at least the facade of a healthy executive structure. When the CEO exits abruptly, it looks like anything but that.

So what happened? Van Natta, according to AllThingsD, was frustrated with his job and the lack of a quick turnaround for MySpace. His past resume is no less frenetic. The saga of his comings and goings in Silicon Valley's executive ranks is a complex, fast-paced, and ambitious one, with many a tech and media power player--including a whole lot of MTV and AOL alums--somehow entwined.

Right off the bat, he'd been a particularly noteworthy choice for the head post at MySpace because he'd once served as an executive at the company that had gradually overtook MySpace as the world's biggest social-media site: Facebook. When he was hired at Facebook in September 2005, he'd been best-known as the founder of search site A9.com, which he sold to Amazon. He then served as the retailer's vice president of worldwide business and corporate development.

Van Natta stepped down from his job at Facebook in February 2008. An executive reshuffling had shifted him from chief operating officer to chief revenue officer and vice president of operations, some considered the job shift a sign that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had demoted Van Natta. Word had it that Van Natta had eventually hoped to replace the young Zuckerberg as CEO, but it soon became evident that Zuckerberg, who had founded the site in 2004 as a student at Harvard, wasn't going to step aside any time soon.

Later in 2008, Van Natta announced that his next role would be as the CEO of Project Playlist, then a hyped music-sharing start-up backed by an investment from the Pilot Group, the investment firm founded by former AOL exec Bob Pittman. It competed directly with MySpace's new MySpace Music, which had launched several months previously with former MTV digital czar Courtney Holt at the helm. Van Natta had been on the short list to take the MySpace Music job, but turned it down.

At Project Playlist, Van Natta was responsible for inking deals with the record labels, a crucial move for the start-up as it dealt with a lawsuit from the RIAA and takedowns of its widgets from Facebook and MySpace. But after a matter of months, he departed for the MySpace gig and was replaced at Project Playlist by MTV co-founder John Sykes.

Under Van Natta's auspices, MySpace acquired social music sites iLike and Imeem. He also made a prominent appearance at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last fall in which he showcased a new music video catalog on MySpace and an "artist dashboard" for bands using it as a promotional platform. On a less promising note, he also oversaw layoffs of nearly 30 percent last June, as the social site dealt with a bloated employee headcount and the need to cut budgets amid stagnant traffic.

MySpace, which was the leading social-networking site in 2008, had fewer than 70 million U.S. visitors at the end of last year, compared to more than 110 million for Facebook, according to ComScore. MySpace Music, however, grew 92 percent in the past year, the report said.

Visitors to MySpace have dropped slightly since 2008, while Facebook has skyrocketed, ComScore says. ComScore Media Metrix

So who's in charge now? Courtney Holt is still at the helm of the MySpace Music division. The two overseeing MySpace itself are both media veterans, too--Jason Hirschhorn was also an MTV digital exec and then a member of the management team at Sling Media, and Jones was an exec at AOL after the company acquired his previous project, Userplane. Then there's Jon Miller, another former AOL executive. He joined News Corp. shortly after MySpace had hired Van Natta.

Right now, MySpace's management direction is anything but clear. Neither is its future as a whole. Facebook continues to grow bigger and bigger, recently announcing that it has over 400 million active users worldwide.

And digital music, MySpace's crown jewel, is in a position of significant upheaval as well. Both Google and Facebook have struck streaming-music deals with a service called Lala (Google also partnered with MySpace Music and iLike) in moves that would make online music more accessible and ideally more profitable. But shortly thereafter, Lala was acquired by Apple, and rumor has it that its technology will become an integral part of Apple's iTunes product.

With Facebook owning social networking and Apple attempting to lock up the distribution of digital media, MySpace's position in the industry is more uncertain than ever.

CNET's Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.

Updated 7:10 p.m. PST with expanded information about Van Natta's past roles in tech and the future of MySpace.